July 18, 2023

The Divine Intersection of Tradition and Art: the Kyoto Gion Festival

What is the Gion Festival?

Gion Festival Naginata-Hoko
Naginata hoko

The Gion Festival(Gion Matsuri), one of the three grand festivals of Japan, is a magnificent celebration held in Kyoto for an entire month every July. With a rich history that spans back an astonishing 1154 years, the festival originated as a purification ceremony to fend off epidemics, known as the Goryoe, focusing on Yasaka Shrine. Over the centuries, this glorious tradition has been upheld and protected by the locals, referred to as Yamaboko-cho. As a result, an incredible 1.8 million people flock to Kyoto each year to revel in the grandeur and beauty of the Gion Festival.

Enjoying the Gion Festival

A Parade of Lavishly Decorated Floats across the City Streets

One of the defining features of the Gion Festival is the sight of intricately decorated floats known as Yama and hoko parading through the city streets.
Each adornment on these floats embodies fine arts and traditional Japanese craftwork. Among these, the textiles stand out, incorporating Nishijin weaving, Persian rugs, and a vibrant assortment of international fabrics from China, Belgium, and India – all precious enough to be considered national cultural assets. With masterpieces from Kyoto’s top artists also gracing the floats, they are aptly referred to as “moving art museums.”

Gion Festival Naginata-Hoko
Decoration of Naginata hoko
Gion Festival Naginata hoko roof
Naginata hoko roof
Gion Festival Iwato yama roof
Iwato yama roof

A particular spectacle is the ‘Tsujimawashi’, a thrilling maneuver to turn the floats, which can only move in straight lines, at intersections. This crucial turn, executed over planks of bamboo and accompanied by chants, while the 10-ton float is rotated 90 degrees, is an exhilarating scene teeming with energy.

Gion Festival Naginata-Hoko Tsujimawashi
Naginata hoko making a Tsujimawashi at Kawaramachi-Oike

The Eve of the Yama-hoko Parade: Emotional Yoiyama

“Yoiyama” refers to the three days preceding the Yama-hoko parade. During this period, as the light of paper lanterns fills the city, you can admire the Yama-hoko floats up close. Additionally, an age-old tradition known as the “Byobu Matsuri” takes place in the old houses and long-established shops in the area. This custom involves showcasing precious art pieces owned by the houses, providing a unique opportunity for visitors to appreciate the meticulously preserved artworks and crafts.

Gion Festival Yoiyama 2023
Yoiyama on Shijo Street

The True Stars of the Gion Festival: The Sacred Mikoshi Shrines

While there are numerous ceremonies and events during the Gion Festival, the parade of the Yama-hoko floats undoubtedly draws the most attention. However, the actual climax and stars of the festival are the three ‘Mikoshi’, portable shrines carrying the deities of Yasaka Shrine, paraded around the city during the Divine Procession and the Return Procession to ward off calamities. These Mikoshi, marching from evening to night, enveloped in an air of sanctity, symbolize the pinnacle of the festival.

Gion Festival Shinkosai
Three Mikoshi gather in front of Yasaka Shrine


The Gion Festival is a brilliant fusion of Japanese tradition and art. Its scale and beauty captivate all who attend. It is a must-see event for those interested in Japanese culture and Kyoto’s traditional craftwork. Why not experience a summer in Kyoto with the Gion Festival and immerse yourself in its wonder?