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Many neighborhoods in Japan have festivals during the summer, often centered around the local shrine. They generally include processions, musical performances, and Shinto rituals, with the festivities lasting a day, or maybe two if they stretch throughout the weekend.

Kyoto’s Gion district, though, does things on a grander scale. The Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival) starts on July 1 and runs for the entire month, with some sort of event happening almost every day. And while most non-residents can’t clear out enough of their schedule to sped a few solid weeks in Japan’s former capital, this beautiful video gives the highlights of the event.

Although it’s a lively and enjoyable event now, the roots of the festival lie in some tragic events. Much like Tokyo’s gigantic Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, the Gion Matsuri was started as an effort to appease angry gods. In the year 869, Kyoto had been struck with a plague, and so the Yasaka Shrine’s mikoshi (portable shrines) were paraded around the city in hopes that the placated gods would bestow their blessings upon Kyoto once again.

The same response was made during subsequent plagues, and in 970, the festival became a regular affair, gradually taking on the joyous atmosphere it has today.

One of the most important days of the festival comes on July 10, with the event known as Omukae Chochin. Since the miikoshi are the temporary homes of the gods, it wouldn’t due to have them sullied by earthly impurities during their processions. To purify their paths, men carry bundles of flaming bamboo on their backs, as fire is held to have a spiritually cleansing effect in Shinto belief.

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Before the mikoshi arrive at the shrine, a number of dances are performed on the grounds the most impressive of which is the Sagi Odori, which means “Heron Dance.” A similar performance is held in Shimane Prefecture’s Tsuwano, in which dancers dress and move like the long-legged birds.

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Other dances include the Komachi Odori, which originated in the early 17th century as part of a welcome given by Kyoto to visiting Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last warlord standing after generations of civil war.

▼ If people not only dance when you come to town, but still do it 400 years later, then you’ve got some serious juice.

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Once the dancing is done, the three mikoshi themselves make their entrance preceded by a procession of lanterns.

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Two weeks later, the Gion Matsuri has another big day with the Hanagasa Parade on the 24th. Hanagasa literally means “Flower Umbrella,” and those are exactly the things used to decorate the floats.

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Mikoshi once again feature prominently, this time in small-sized versions carried by children. Kids actually play a large role in the parade, as other appear dressed as samurai or horseback-riding pageboys.

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With its long history as a center of geisha culture, representatives from the city’s various geisha districts also appear, both atop floats pulled by attendants and onstage during a series of musical performances.

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Also held on July 24 is the Kankosai. While the Mikoshi are publicly displayed during the Gion Matsuri, they spend the rest of the year in storage. So before they make their return to Yasaka Shrine, they need to be purified, which is the reason for the Kankosai.

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Finally, on July 31, the last day of the festival, Eki Shrine is the site of the Nagoshisai. A sort of closing ceremony, the Nagoshisai is yet another purification ritual, but this time for human mortals, who’re blessed as they pass through a grass ring known as a chinowa.

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After that, the festival comes to a close. We assume everyone heads home for some well-deserved rest and starts gathering their strength for the next Gion Matsuri, which is then just 11 months away.

Source:YouTube via Reddit
Screenshots: YouTube