Summer in Kyoto can be unpleasantly hot and humid, the downside of being in a basin, shielded by mountains. The placid climate most of the year takes on the character of steamer with the lid on, and even in shade the perspiration flows.
But July is a month-long festival nonetheless, with the Gion Matsuri running from the 1st to the 31st. It’s another of the great festivals that visitors travel from far and wide to see, and the town becomes abuzz with joyful energy.
From the 1st to the 31st
The Gion Matsuri or Gion Goryo-e, as it’s officially known, is one of the largest festivals held in Japan, and historically, likely the oldest, with a known history that dates back 1100 years. In 869 CE infectious disease plagued the populace. In response, it appealed to the ancient salutary Indian Buddhist demigod Gomaya Griva Deva Raja also known as Gavagriva, and in Japanese Gozu Tenno.
Gomaya Griva Deva Raja then became one with a rather ferocious and malevolent Shinto deity known as Susano no Mikoto who holds custodianship of storms and seas, and is closely associated with the oftentimes wild storms of summer. His shrine is the Yasaka Shrine, located in Kyoto’s Gion district. On the night of the 17th an event occurs called Jinkosai, when the spirit of the shrine inhabits the smaller vessel known as the mikoshi (technically a “divine palanquin”). This smaller vessel, though still so large it requires a procession of stout men to carry it on their shoulders, is circulated through the district. The goal is to mollify the angry god, to soften him and make him smile. So the local community groups come together, dressed in traditional finery, to parade the mikoshi and regale it with song and dance. Kyoto’s townspeople have been carrying on this tradition unfailingly despite upheavals, fires, and other sorts of distractions and disasters. These gatherings – 23 of them on the 17th, 10 on the 24th – parade through a town that’s been transformed into a living repository of traditional arts and crafts – so much so that these events have come to be thought of as the “moving museum”. It is this that best characterizes the feeling of the great Gion Festival.
The Gion Matsuri draws to a close with a sort of sub-festival called Nagoshi Matsuri. Throngs of supplicants file through the shrine’s torii, or ceremonial gate, which has been outfitted with a circular thatched portal. The evil and ill-will, the things that tarnished the soul over the prior half year, are thereby stripped from them, and they go forward cloaked in a sense of well-being and health.