Kyoto’s Gion Festival is a marvel every time, but Gion Matsuri 2023 was especially celebratory. July 2023 saw the first normal Gion Matsuri since covid led to the ancient festival being trimmed down to its most essential elements in 2020 and 2021.
The Gion Matsuri is completely dependent on the remarkable community that holds it each year, almost entirely volunteers. Historically, the traditions are also conveyed from one person to another, by doing it together. So it’s important that the community is connecting in person again, to share the traditions, and grow.
Doing this without covid masks was of course a wonderful feeling!
Protection from Harm
2023 saw the first time in four years that hundreds of men carried the Gion Matsuri’s portable mikoshi shrines on their circumlocutory routes through all the Gion neighborhoods. This is a lively, noisy, and vigorous spectacle, with the multi-ton weight of the mikoshi shrines apparent by the grimaces on the men’s faces.
Men carry one of the portable mikoshi shrines around the Yakasa Shrine parish so the deity can protect all from harm.
Why does this matter? Adherents believe that these boisterous processions allows Yasaka Shrine’s resident deities to protect local residents, businesses, and visitors from harm, epidemics in particular. On July 17, the mikoshi are carried from Yasaka Shrine to the otabisho “visiting place” at Teramachi Shijo intersection, and on July 24 they are carried back, with the three mikoshi going on totally different routes from each other, and for each procession. In a sense this is done to protect as many people and as much space as possible.
Remember, the Gion Festival community and visitors have been praying to festival deities for this protection from epidemics for more than 1150 years. Naturally, local communities felt disturbed when the covid pandemic ironically interrupted this tradition. So getting back to normal—or forward to something better—felt especially good.
Tradition and Stability
“I like it when things are the same year after year,” commented the elder Mrs. Hata of the 160-year-old Hata-Ke. Hata-Ke is a historic traditional kyomachiya, an architectural gem in the area where the Gion Matsuri’s yamaboko floats are constructed each July. Specifically, it comprises a cultural and spiritual heart for the Taishi Yama neighborhood, one of 34 floats’ communities in the Gion Festival. This particular community and its float revere the historical genius-saint Prince Shotoku Taishi. “That means things are stable, and you can have peace of mind.”
The Hata home gives us an idea of what the Gion Matsuri neighborhoods used to look like.
The interior garden of Hata Ke. Most of the older homes in this neighborhood have interior gardens.
The sacred statue of Prince Shotoku on Taishi Yama during the Saki Matsuri’s yamaboko procession on July 17.
Mrs. Hata’s comment took me by surprise: personally, I like change, which is how I got involved in the Gion Matsuri to begin with. When I encountered the festival more than 30 years ago, it presented a completely different world from what I’d always known.
But change isn’t always good: The Gion Matsuri’s history is marked with plagues, droughts, famine, wars and great fires. In the wake of covid, Mrs. Hata’s words rang true.
A Post-Covid Gion Matsuri and Kyoto: Changes in Tourism
So what has recovery from covid looked like? While no yamaboko floats were built for Gion Matsuri 2020, 18 (out of 33 total) were constructed for Gion Matsuri 2021, reportedly to preserve the traditional construction methods.
As mentioned, the specialized float construction and decoration methods and skills are passed on by doing. Like elsewhere in the world, rising real estate values are driving historic residents away from the Gion Matsuri neighborhoods in Kyoto’s urban core. More and more, the value of elders passing on their experience outranks real estate prices. The former is social and cultural capital, not yet accounted for in budgets, but precious like our environment’s health.
Gion Festival 2022 took place at an almost-normal scale, but with covid masks considered mandatory and—festival and masks notwithstanding—high covid rates. For non-Japanese, though, Japan’s strict, covid-related requirements to enter the country made it practically off limits (and extremely expensive) for non-residents. So a “normal” Gion Matsuri 2023 was something to celebrate indeed.
Of course, shining as one of the world’s great centers of traditional culture, Kyoto depends heavily on tourism. And as global culture becomes more and more convenience- and tech-oriented, the traditional culture that attracts us to Kyoto is struggling to adapt. Japan’s small, contemplative spaces weren’t built for the busloads of tourists who love to admire them while livestreaming.
The Gion Matsuri as an Economic Engine
But without its regular influx of countless visitors, covid hit Kyoto’s economy hard. Though throngs of tourists can naturally feel chafing to Kyoto residents, 2-3 covid years of deserted streets during covid also meant dwindling coffers, closed or stressed businesses, and ballooning municipal debts.
What does this have to do with the Gion Matsuri? Though the Gion Festival remains mysteriously little-known outside of Japan, this community-oriented festival sparkles as the city’s single largest annual cultural event. Consequently, during the Gion Festival, countless Kyoto hotels are fully booked, and Kyoto’s innumerable delicious restaurants are too. Generally, other businesses also celebrate festive economic circumstances in the Gion Matsuri season.
Towards a Generative Gion Matsuri
But remember, the Gion Matsuri is put on each year by thousands of volunteers. How can fully-booked hotels and restaurants and busy shops support these people who actually host the the festival? Since they’re not necessarily locally owned, how could our travel help ensure a vibrant matsuri and community for centuries to come? What would such “generative tourism” look like? How can Gion Matsuri visitors like us enjoy the Gion Matsuri, while helping ensure that the communities, events and artifacts we’re visiting flourish too? How can we be, and what can we do to co-create this vision so that it manifests as a standard reality?
During the Gion Festival this year I invited author, Japanologist, and Thai culture expert Alex Kerr and Japanese culture expert and revitalizer Steve Beimel to have a public conversation together with me about these very questions, held in a live/online hybrid in Kyoto and online. Steve and Alex have done marvelous things to help conserve traditional Japanese culture and share it internationally. You’re invited to be the change you’d like to see in the world, and share your thoughts in the comments on our Youtube video of the event.
Undertaking a sea change like this in the nature of tourism presents an intriguing challenge. For example, while innumerable images and video are taken of the Gion Matsuri each year (including lots by me), how can these give back to the communities who share the festival with us?
Our Generative Tourism event on July 14, at the new JapanCraft21 office, a historic Kyoto building.
Especially with a tradition of spiritual rituals like the Gion Festival, a foundation based on sacred exchange (a.k.a. sacred commerce in the business world, including tourism) makes sense. I use this website, FB, IG, and YT channels, and my book to try to engage with a sacred exchange. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, these are small steps, but each the steps we take together grow into journeys embracing the planet.
Gion Matsuri 2023, International Understanding, and World Peace: It’s Easier With Others
In the 1990s I used to stand in front of hand-painted, all-Japanese signs with my fat Japanese-English dictionary, paging through it to try to understand what the sign said. I had an electronic dictionary—the latest in high tech!—but many of the specialized festival words weren’t in it. In those days the Gion Matsuri was renowned for being difficult to understand and impenetrable towards outsiders, including Japanese.
This used to be the most accessible source of information on the Gion Matsuri floats.
So one of my early goals was to make it easier for non-Japanese to learn about, understand, and enjoy the Gion Matsuri. And in ways that honored the festival’s spiritual roots, and supported the Gion Festival community. At first I thought I’d do that by writing a book. But the dotcom industry boomed, and instead I made a Gion Festival website. Then I made a Gion Festival FB page, a Gion Festival YT channel, and—you guessed it—an IG account. Finally I had the pleasure of writing and releasing my book on Exploring the Gion Festival’s Mysteries in 2020.
This year, for the first time, I had an awesome team helping me share the Gion Festival 2023 and related topics with an international audience. Besides our generative tourism event above, I presented International Perspectives on the Gion Matsuri at the fabulous Kyoto International Community House (a.k.a KoKoKa).
The presentation was designed for the KoKoKa staff so they could better explain the Gion Matsuri to their many international visitors. But many other additional Japanese and international guests joined us, including cultural experts from the international community in Kyoto, especially some dear friends from the esteemed Kyoto Journal.
Can you imagine explaining the Gion Matsuri to diverse people from multiple countries and cultures, like the KoKoKa staff do? Though it’s a symbol of traditional Kyoto, the Gion Matsuri has adopted cultures and art from around the world. That was fun to highlight, and it offers a very promising resource for international exchange and world peace. It is a World Heritage Event after all. Stay tuned for an 2024 event on the Gion Matsuri as a vehicle for world peace and diplomacy. Special thanks to my producer, author, and world-peace advocate Masashi Nakamura.
Most significantly for me, I spent Gion Matsuri 2023 collaborating closely with my talented assistant and Buddhism student, Cara—my main vocation is teaching Buddhism, meditation, and other spiritual methodologies, and helping run our awesome retreat center, Clear Sky. Cara and I shared a Buddhism-themed journey within the mostly-Shinto experience of the Gion Matsuri’s purification rites. Cara wrote a great blog about it here: Adventures on the Path of (Female) Guru Yoga.
At the Gion Matsuri, Cara helped me plan, shoot, and organize strategic video footage so that we can better introduce people to diverse aspects of the gigantic Gion Festival. In our excitement, we shared a preview of what’s to come with this video on the essence of the Gion Matsuri. Kudos to Cara for a job well done, and stay tuned for more videos!
Cara filming in the early morning while it is still quiet and cool on Kyoto’s streets.
During the festival we filmed an introduction to each float – here I am at Ofune Boko as it is being assembled.
Traditions Do Change
Keep in mind that the Gion Matsuri is vast. After more than 25 years of fieldwork, I am still learning new things, and there are still parts of the festival I haven’t experienced. No one can keep track of it all, including the elders who have participated in it their whole lives. So toss FOMO aside and fully enjoy whatever parts you experience.
This year, I was really excited to see the lovely Hanagasa Junko procession on July 24, because I never had! It is rich with Kyoto’s maiko, geiko, traditional musicians, and children training in traditional dance. But agonizingly, the Hanagasa Junko takes place at the same time as the Ato Matsuri yamaboko floats’ procession on July 24! I have good friends participating in the yamaboko processions, so cheering them on during those tests of their endurance had always taken priority.
I was excited to see the Hanagasa Junko in 2022, but it was cancelled due to covid and heat wave concerns: Hanagasa Junko participants include mostly women and many children.
Since it was scheduled to take place in 2023, I came up with a good plan: I’d strategically watch the Hanagasa Junko procession at the point where it comes closest to the yamaboko procession. Smart, right?
Full of anticipation, I arrived at the spot, only to find a mostly empty shopping arcade. The Hanagasa Junko wasn’t there this year! This took me completely by surprise.
Adapting … To Whatever is Happening
I managed to capture a snippet of the procession half a kilometer away. Mostly I enjoyed some of the beautiful dances by the same geiko and maiko at Yasaka Shrine after the procession.
Afterward, I inquired about the route change with the shrine staff. “Yes, the route was different this year,” a staff member explained. She showed me a map of a completely different route than pre-covid.
Kyoto geiko-san dance on Yasaka Shrine’s stage to cap the Hanagasa Junko on July 24.
A scene from my brief glimpse of the Hangasa Junko this year.
“Why did it change?” I asked, astonished at such a big break from festival tradition. “Will it be like this from now on?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I’d have to ask, and the person who might know isn’t here.”
I checked the Kyoto newspaper, which reported on the new route but gave no explanations or conjecture for next year’s route.
Be prepared for the unexpected. Change happens, even amidst time-honored traditions like the Gion Matsuri. So be sure you enjoy yourself at the Gion Matsuri—or anywhere, for that matter—come what may (meditative practices help!).
After 40+ years of international travel (don’t take as long as me!) I’m finally learning that it’s not about the amazing videos or even wonderful experiences that we get. It’s all about how much joy and peace we can share together with the people we happen to find ourselves with, and perhaps leaving the space a tiny bit lovelier than it was before.
Interested in learning more about the amazing Gion Matsuri? Enjoy a free excerpt from my book. A Gion Matsuri Yamaboko Rengokai director kindly remarked, “It’s a much finer book than anything we’ve ever published.”
Access free interactive maps with locations and description of all 34 Gion Festival floats, plus procession routes!