In July in Kyoto, there is one of the biggest festivals in Japan, called Kyoto Gion Festival. This festival has several different sections which last one whole month in total.
Kyoto Gion Festival started in hope of getting epidemics and disasters away from Kyoto city. In 863 at a garden called Shinsenen, which you can still visit today (it is south of Nijo Castle), the government decided to organize a religious event hoping that it would stop the spread of disease. However it didn’t. Then in 869, people started to putting 66 floats (66 was the number of counties in Kyoto at the time) to gather evil spirits and purify them. Then they enshrined a God of plagues from a temple called Gion Shojya in India called Gozu Tenno. Also, three portable shrines were sent to the shrine called Gionsya. At the end of the Heian era (794-1192), people in Kyoto started to carry Yamahokos (decorated floats) and walk around Kyoto city.
As I said in the beginning, this is a month long festival. If you are a serious Gion Festival maniac, you can check out all of it, but here I’d like to introduce a few events instead. If you are lucky enough to be in Kyoto in the middle of July, why don’t you go to the town area and check them out? If you want to see this festival as your main sightseeing event, then be sure to book your hotel early.
Mikoshi Arai (portable shrine purifying): July 10th
One of three portable shrines called Nakagoza which worships Gozu Tenono is led to Shijo Ohashi Bridge and purified in Kamogawa River around 8 PM.
Hokotate/Yamatate (building the floats): July 10 – 14th
In many sections in the town area, you can see the building process of these beautifully decorated floats. Every float has an unique design, so if you have time, I recommend you check out all of them.
Yoiyama: July 14 – 16th
There are many festival stands all over the town area especially close to the Yamahokos. The local kids are playing flutes all day long and you can see the complete floats. If you buy a Chimaki (a rice product) you can actually get on the float. Chimaki usually costs 500 – 1000 yen and you cannot eat it. It is a good luck charm. The floats are illuminated with paper lanterns at night.
Yamahoko Jyungyo (Floats tour): July 17th
People move the floats (33) on July 17th in town area. They start from Shijo street -> Kawaramachi street -> Oike Street -> Shinmachi Oike street. And then they move back to their original spots. The order differs every year depending on the result of a lottery. But Naginatahoko (1) always go first.
Shinkosai (July 17th)
At around PM 4, three portable shrines called Mikoshi are carried from Yasaka shrine and paraded around town area to Otabisho which is a rest stop. And on the 24th they go back to Yasaka Shrine by different routes. These three shrines are : Nakagoza, Higashigoza and Nishigoza and they carry a God called Susano o Mikoto (Gozu Tenno), Kushinadahime no Mikoto and Yahashira no Mikogami respectively.