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Gion Festival Will Soon Be Ending

Gion Festival (祇園祭) is a month-long festival in Kyoto starting with Kippu-iri (吉符入り, the opening ceremony which signifies the commencement of Shito religious rituals that take place over the course of the festival) on July 1st, till Nagoshi-sai at Eki shrine (疫神社夏越祭, the ceremony which tells the end of the Gion festival) on July 31.

The origin of Gion festival dates back to the Heian (平安) period. In those days, Kamo river (鴨川) flooded repeatedly and the Shirakawa Jyoko (白河上皇), the retired emperor who was still in absolute power, could not handle the situation. During Tsuyu (梅雨, rainy season), the rotten smell of the flood water filled the town causing epidemic all over Kyoto. Especially in 869 A.D., an enormous number of people died of infectious disease, and people had no major solution against the pandemic other than praying for gods. With this historical background, Gion festival was started at Yasaka shrine (八坂神社) in order to ward off evil and disease.

The interesting thing about the festival is: like many other Kyoto residents, I was thinking that the Yamaboko-Junko (山鉾巡行, the procession of the floats) was the main event of the festival, however, the fact was different.

The main event of the festival is Mikoshi-togyo (神輿渡御) conducted in the evening of July 17 and 24 after the Yamaboko Junko processions in day time, where the three gods of Yasaka shrine travel around the town in three Mikoshi (神輿, portable shrine). The purpose of Yamaboko-Junko prior to Mikoshi-Togyo is in fact to purify the route of three gods’ Mikoshi-togyo.

Gion festival has one thousand and one hundred years of history. I am sure there must be many other unknown facts and stories yet to learn.

Akane Kibune
Kyoto Expert Certificate 1st Grade