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Japan's Gion Matsuri Festival highlights Kyoto

Gion Matsuri Festival
The world-famous Gion Matsuri Festival will once again put the spotlight on its host city Kyoto this July for the annual staging of the famed Japanese event. During the month-long celebration, over 30 carnival-style traditional festivities will draw crowds to Japan’s cultural capital to marvel at a host of parades and traditional celebrations. The Gion Matsuri Festival is often regarded as one of Japan’s leading festivals, and is named after Kyoto's Gion district, Japan's most exclusive Geisha entertainment district.

The festival has advanced significantly since its beginnings, when it was originally a religious ritual to calm the plague that spread all over the country in 869AD. Today it attracts thousands of visitors to the city, which erupts in a vibrant display of culture and where Japan’s festivities and culture are showcased through a series of parades. Despite being named after Kyoto's Gion district, the hub of activity centres around the Yasaka-jinja shrine.

‘Yamahoko Junko’ is the highlight of the festival and this year is set to wow crowds when it takes place on 17 July 2015. Visitors are invited to see giant decorated floats called ‘Hoko’ and ‘Yama’ as they are pulled through the city. Children and adults ride on the Yamahoko floats, embracing the festival music with whistles and bells to heighten the carnival mood. During the evening, festivities turn to Shinkosai, a ritual that starts at the famed Yasaka-jinja shrine and sees three portable shrines paraded by over a thousand men dressed in their traditional Japanese happi coats to the temporary otabisho shrine.

In the run up to Yamahoko Junko, the streets of Gion are closed to cars for the three days ahead of its start to allow the floats to be built in the streets. Street vendors line the roads selling traditional Japanese snacks for those arriving to watch the masterpieces take shape. Visitors to the city over this iconic festival period should make sure they are ready to don a traditional yukata - a casual kimono - to really feel like they are part of the festivities.

In 2014, after an absence of more than 50 years, the festival welcomed back its tradition of hosting two separate parades on the 17th and 24th July. The first is Saki-matsuri, the procession where portable shrines leave their home shrine and the second is Ato-matsuri, the procession where the portable shrines are returned home. The two separate processions merged in 1966 to promote tourism however this year they will be celebrated once again as separate processions.

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