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Tuesday, 22nd July 2014
In General Japan News,

Gion festival draws crowds

There is palpable excitement in Kyoto this week, as the city gets ready to host its annual Gion festival.

Widely regarded as one of the most splendorous matsuris in the entire country, the event sees thousands of locals and tourists turning out in order to watch the vast floats that are walked down the street, adorned with traditional Japanese decorations.

For the first time in almost half a century, the festival will be divided into two separate parades, with the first taking place today (July 17th) and the second a week later on July 24th. The first of these is set to be the most extravagant, with fewer and smaller floats being used in the second.

Those lucky enough to be in Kyoto during the month of July will notice a host of special events being held by various establishments across the city, as the locals get set to let their hair down for this very special event.

Particularly impressive are the floats, which are dragged along the roads using wheels as large as people. You can get good viewpoints all along the Kamo River, while paid seating is provided near the entrance to the Yasaka Shrine.

But while standing there and observing the beautiful Japanese patterns that adorn the magnificent structures, you may well find yourself thinking, 'What's it all for?'

Dating back to 869 AD, the Gion festival is one of Japan's oldest and most traditional events. Taking place in the Gion district - which is famed for being the home of Kyoto's geisha and maiko - it's an incredible spectacle that originates from the Yasaka Shrine.

Traditions include the appointment of a child as a divine messenger. From July 13th, this boy or girl must be regarded as sacred and not step foot on the ground until they have been paraded through the town atop the floats on the 17th.

The origins of the matsuri lie in appeasing the Gods and praying for good luck.

Other events to look out for include the assembly and construction of the floats from scratch, a task that is achieved without the use of machinery or nails.

When in residential areas, visitors may also notice various items on tables and chairs. These are family heirlooms, set out by proud people as part of the Byobu Matsuri, which coincides with the Gion Festival.

Those unlucky enough to miss the festival during their time in Kyoto, do not fear - Japan's ancient capital has more than enough on offer to appease the intrepid traveller. The many temples and shrines hold frequent matsuris to celebrate their various deities, so there's bound to be something going on when you get here, no matter what time of year it happens to be.

Worthwhile experiences include wandering the little wooden huts of the Gion district, visiting the macaque park in neighbouring Arashiyama and sampling traditional Japanese cuisine in an izakaya.