The Gion Festival is over 1100 years old and is the most spectacular of the ceremonies involving Yasaka Shrine. It originates from an epidemic in the year 869 when the chief priest of the Yasaka shrine led a procession of citizens throught the city trying to placate the gods and praying for an end to the plaque – the epidemic subsided, and the festival has been popular ever since. The festival begins July 2nd each year. On this day the portable shrines known as Mikoshi are hauled from their storage sheds and blessed. The most important Mikoshi is carried down to the Kamogawa river on July 10th and is purefied in a ceremony conducted by the chief priest. The Mikoshi is then carried back to Yasaka Shrine on the shoulders of the same young men who brought it to the river. Also on July 10th, three Mikoshi are carried from the shrine to City Hall and the festival starts. Carrying lanterns on very long poles and wearing traditional dress, the participants escort the Mikoshi in a parade and dance groups perform in front of the City Hall. The main part of the festival is from July 15th to 17th. For the first two days the festival carts are lined up in Shijo-dori west of the river – you can get up close and have a good look. There is music and fun every night. On the morning of the third day the parade begins and many carts, mikoshi and other floats parade along Kawaramachi-dori and Oike-dori streets. If you have the money, you can reserve seats in stands set up along Oike-dori (need to be quick though). All in all it is a colorful and exciting festival.
At the eastern end of Shijo-dori (4th street) bordering Maruyama park, this shrine is open 24 hours and is one of the most important and popular shrines in Kyoto. Popularly known by the locals as Gion-san, it is dedicated to the Shinto deities Susa-no-o (brother of Amaterasu Omikami – and wayward “black sheep” of the mythological progenitors of the Imperial family), his spouse Inadahime-no-Mikoto and their mythological children (all 8 of them). The important thing to remember is that Susa-no-o is regarded as the Shinto god of medicine. In the year 869, thousands prayed to Susa-no-o for relief from an epidemic – an event that led to the Gion festival.
Ro-mon: The Ro-mon is a two-story gateway with bright vermilion posts and white walls at the top of the steps leading up from Shijo-dori. It is built in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573) style. There are Shinto guardians on both sides of the entrance protecting the grounds from evil spirits. Just past the gate there are Korean stone lion dogs known as koma-inu protecting the stairs that lead to the main part of the shrine.
Haiden: The Haiden (Offertory building) is on the left of the central area. Opposite it is a roofed ceremonial stage for religious ceremonies and a roofed water basin for purification. Most of the buildings here date from a reconstruction in 1654, including storage sheds for the Mikoshi (see Gion Festival below).
Honden: The Honden (spirit hall) is the most important building. 21 X 17.3 meters (approximately 69 X 57 feet) in size, this single story building has a wooden shingle roof that is half hipped/half gabled. Worshippers pray before the altar after waking up the god with a rattle of the pan shaped bells at the front of the building.
Yasaka Shrine is very popular with Kyoto’s citizens. Newborn infants are brought to the shrine for registration – usually by doting grandmothers wearing formal kimono. Children are brought to the Shrine in November for the Shichi-go-san (seven, five and three year old children) Festival. The main events though are the Gion Festival, New Year and Setsubun.