Gion Matsuri-2012! A Pictorial Overview! , a set on Flickr.
The word Yamaboko refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: Yama, of which there are 23, and hoko, of which there are 9. One of the main reasons the Gion Matsuri is so impressive is the enormity of the hoko, which can be up to 25 meters tall, weigh up to 12 tons, and are pulled on wheels as big as people. Both yama and hoko are elaborately decorated and represent unique themes.
Another reason for the festival’s impressiveness is its long and almost uninterrupted history. It dates back to 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of an epidemic. Even today, the festival continues the practice of selecting a local boy to be a divine messenger. The child cannot set foot on the ground from the 13th until after he has been paraded through town on the 17th.
The procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) takes place between 9:00 and 13:00 on the 17th and follows a 3 km route along Shijo, Kawaramachi and Oike streets. Some paid seating is provided in front of the city hall (3100 yen; advance booking required), but because the procession takes place over quite a long route and duration, good viewpoints can also be found elsewhere without too much trouble.
This festival originated as part of a purification ritual (goryo-e) to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. In 869, the people were suffering from plague and pestilence which was attributed to the rampaging deity Gozu Tennō. Emperor Seiwa ordered that the people pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, Susanoo-no-mikoto. Sixty-six stylized and decorated halberds, one for each province in old Japan, were prepared and erected at Shinsen-en, a garden, along with the portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine.
This practice was repeated wherever an outbreak occurred. In 970, it was decreed an annual event and has since seldom been broken. Over time the increasingly powerful and influential merchant class made the festival more elaborate and, by the Edo period (1603–1868), used the parade to brandish their wealth.
In 1533, the Ashikaga shogunate halted all religious events, but the people protested, stating that they could do without the rituals, but not the procession. This marks the progression into the festival’s current form. Smaller floats that were lost or damaged over the centuries have been restored, and the weavers of the Nishijin area offer new tapestries to replace destroyed ones. When not in use, the floats and regalia are kept in special storehouses throughout the central merchant district of Kyoto in the care of the local people.
This festival also serves as an important setting in Yasunari Kawabata’s novel, The Old Capital which he describes it along with the Festival of the Ages and the Aoi Festival as “the ‘three great festivals’ of the old capital.”