Kyoto’s Gion Festival is regarded as one of the three most renowned festivals in Japan. A collection of spiritual rituals and celebrations orienting around Yasaka Shrine and central Kyoto, it’s lasted for more than 1000 years. It is held at the shrine and in the central area of Kyoto. This Festival—whose various events last the entire month of July—is divided into two parts: the Saki Matsuri (Early Festival) and Ato Matsuri (Later Festival).
The first half of the Gion Festival, the Saki Matsuri, lasts from July 10-17. Various events lead up to the peak on July 17, with the Yamaboko Junko floats’ procession and the Shinko-Sai procession of portable shrines. From July 10, the Yamaboko floats get decorated with an array of artistic treasures from the best of Japan to exotic textiles from different countries and centuries. Consequently, the floats are also called “moving museums”. Part of their role is to cleanse the city of harmful spirits, so once the saki matsuri is completed on July 27, they are quickly.
The Saki Matsuri Timeline
Construction of Saki Matsuri floats begins around July 10th. While the floats are built and decorated in the area around the central Karasuma Shijo intersection, the parallel “Shinkosai” celebration connects more to the resident deities at nearby Yasaka Jinja Shrine.
From the early morning of July 17th, the yamaboko floats are pulled through the streets of downtown Kyoto, accompanied by unique festival music. This majestic procession includes 23 giant floats adorned with eye-catching artistic treasures. As they make a circuit through central Kyoto (ending around noon), they prepare the city streets for Yasaka Shrine’s resident deities: the god of storms, the goddess of rice, and their children. July is the rainy season, essential to grow life-giving rice, and these deities help ensure a healthy populace.
That same night, thousands of men carry three ornate, portable mikoshi shrines on their shoulders, bringing these deities from Yasaka Shrine to stay in central Kyoto for a week.
Initially, the Gion Festival included both the Saki Matsuri and Ato Matsuri. However, in the 1960s, crowd and traffic concerns resulted in their amalgamation into one intense, week-long celebration, July 10th to July 17th. Ironically, the huge crowd attending the Gion Matsuri and associated logistical challenges became one of the reasons to separate it again. The Gion Festival came back to its original format in 2014, to the joy of traditionalists who honor the festival’s spiritual meaning. After the Saki Matsuri ends on July 17, we can enjoy the Ato Matsuri, which lasts from July 18 to July 24.