The Gion festival is the biggest annual festival of Kyoto that spans over multiple days and is also Japan’s largest annual events. The celebrations comprise of religious observance and extravagant processions having many participants.
It was originally held in ancient times to pray for deliverance of the plague but has now evolved into a grand celebration of Kyoto’s tradition and culture. This summertime festival also sees a gathering of locals and visitors in attractive colors, who indulge in street food and drinks.
The two main events are held on 17 and 24 July, where two enormous parade floats travel through the streets of Kyoto. However, behind these celebrations, lies a dark history that we will discuss now.
Gion Festival folklore
The Gion Festival originated as a purification ritual to appease the ancient gods, who were thought to cause floods, fire, and earthquakes. Back in 869, the people of Japan were suffering from devastating plague and pestilence, which was believed to be caused by Gozu Tenno.
Gozu Tenno wasn’t an ordinary man or a woman, but a rampaging deity who supposedly cause the suffering. The reigning emperor, Emperor Seiwa ordered the people to the gods of Susanoo-no-Mikoto and Yasaka Shrine to appease the raging deity.
According to the emperor’s instructions, a total of 66 halberds, all stylized and decorated were prepared for each province in all Japan. All of them were erected at the Garden of Shinsen-en, along with Mikoshi, the portable shrines from Yasaka Shrine.
This practice became a norm and was repeated every time there was an outbreak of plague or any other natural disaster. In the year 970, the event was decreed to take place annually and hasn’t been broken since then.
In 1533, at a time during the Muromachi Period, the Ashikaga shogunate brought a halt to all the religious events. The people replied by protesting and stated that they could do without the rituals, but the procession has to take place. This is how the festival came to be as it is now.
Japanese plague vs. The Black Death
While the Japanese decided to tackle death and destruction by doing rituals, the people of Europe suffered a much worse fate. The Black Death, an epidemic that was caused by the bubonic plague left close to one-third of the population dead. The plague reached its zenith from 1348 to 1350 and completely ravaged Europe.
Even though scientists of the modern era confirmed that the fatal illness was spread by flea infested rodents, the people of the middle-age blamed the pandemic on the supernatural. Some blamed it on astrology, some on bad air, and some section of the society even started conducting witch hunts, among other things.
It is still not known when and how exactly the disease subsided, but the estimation is that some 75 million to 100 million people across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East got affected. Whereas the people of Europe put the blame on witches and what not, the Japanese folk did rituals to rid themselves of the plague.
Did the rituals work or did they not? You decide.