One of the Big Three
Further to Gion Matsuri, two other major festivals take place in Kyoto: Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. The first is in honour of a type of plant and is held on 15 May. At the Jidai festival (22 October) participants dress up and act out scenes from Japanese history.
Locals ride the floats, wearing traditional dress (kimonos and yukatas), and musicians play flutes and bells. One of the hokos carries a very special passenger, called chigo. This is a child dressed in accordance with Shinto, chosen from among the children of the city’s business people. Since the Kamakura period, this has been the purpose of the celebration, to show the opulence of local trade. However, the origins of Gion Matsuri are different. At the end of the ninth century, with a plague devastating the city, Kyoto was not at its best. This being viewed as a sign from the gods, the city commenced goryo-e rituals to beg clemency and purification. That was the origin of festivals like Gion Matsuri, which is one of the oldest. It began in the year 869, around Yasaka shrine. Since the prayers were successful, it was repeated every year. 66 floats took part in the early processions, which was the number of prefectures in Japan at that time. Today the number has decreased to 32 (nine hokos and 23 yamas).
The local nature of the procession does not prevent casual visitors from joining in. Western faces are very welcome because they give an exotic air to the floats. Beyond watching the parade in the street, you can take an active part and join the procession. To do this, you have to register at Kyoto Prefectural International Center, which is the institution responsible for managing foreign applications. For those unable to take part, the street festival offers various alternatives: enjoying traditional music (gion-bayashi), buying good-luck charms (omamon), and tasting traditional food: yakisoba, okomiyaki, takyaki, yakitori and more. For three nights before the procession, the streets of Kyoto are in full party mode and the floats are illuminated and left out in the street. Some homes leave their doors open for visitors, normally ones that house relics, like ancient kimonos. This generous tradition is also considered a festival: Byobu Matsuri.