Origins of the Gion Festival: What did we eat?

Our human essence can get lost in time’s shriveled grasp, thus making it a wonderful thing when a piece of history is preserved throughout the centuries. Such is the case of the Gion Festival, held in Kyoto practically every year since 970.

The Gion Festival began in the year 869, during the Heian period (8C~12C). The summer weather brought a plague outburst in Kyoto, and the emperor ordered people to perform a ritual as a plea to the Gods. Then, every time a plague swept over Kyoto, the ritual was repeated, eventually becoming an annual Festival.

Cultures have changed since, but the essence of the festival remains: it stands as a prayer to the Gods, and as a celebration of life!

A walk in our past: What did we use to eat?

Japan’s past comes alive every July, sparking our curiosity, making us wonder how was the world during the Heian Era, was it so much different than our world today? Let’s take a peek at what we used to eat!

How we ate in Japan 1100 years ago…

The Heian period was a solidification time for Japan’s cuisine, many of the scarcely eaten goods became a daily necessity. Kyoto’s inhabitants started consuming rice frequently, mixed with millet.

In the 8th-century, eating meat was deemed unclean. But the times of origin of the Gion Festival saw Kyoto’s culture slowly overcome this tradition and add meat to their diets.

Although Japanese ate Yakimono (a dish of grilled fish and meat,) and raw fish with vinegar (namasu), their diets were mainly based on vegetables and fruits. The Festivals were joined with courses of dried vegetables and cooked rice with sake.

Within a mere 200 years from the constitution of the Gion Festival, fish and wild fowl had become a part of the Japanese daily diets.

The Gion Festival began in a time of change in Japan’s eating culture. Moreover, while in Japan a millennial tradition was in the making, the rest of the world had similar diets that revolved around agriculture, and people did not usually eat fats.

…And, how we ate in the rest of the world

Coincidentally, Europeans were starting to plant watermelons, which later became a summer icon in Japan.

However, the peak of the food revolution was dairy, the world had incorporated milk, cheese, and yogurt, and was experimenting with dairy to form the dairy-based diet that remains until today.

How do we eat today?

Nowadays, our feeding habits are intertwined between regions. But Japan maintains the Gion Festival tradition within all of its angles, and the food has not changed so much after the meat was introduced.

The biggest evolution worldwide has come in the form or fats and oils. They have been the protagonists of the rainbow of tastes ever expanding since 1100 years ago.

The beginnings of the Gion Festival are encrusted into human history as an evolving tradition in vulnerable times. The Heian period was a turning point for Japan’s and the world’s history.

Having a parade as old as time, with modern items woven into its yearly execution, is a privilege, and tasting the Gion Festival can be compared to tasting the rich flavors of human history.


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