Bon dancing (Shimodate City)
Shimodate comes alive with activity for the Gion Festival during the four days from the last Thursday to the last Sunday of July. The origins of this celebration date back to 1471, when local clan chief Mizunoya Katsuuji encouraged Haguro Shrine to hold an annual festival. Carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) through the city became a key part of the event during the late nineteenth century, and they have been the main feature ever since.
The enormous and elaborately decorated mikoshi are the pride of the festival. There is the old o-mikoshi (big mikoshi), which weighs a ton and was built in 1895, the lighter hime-mikoshi (princess mikoshi) for women, and the new o-mikoshi, made in 1992 and weighing all of two tons. This is said to be the largest portable shrine anywhere in the country.
Kawatogyo (Shimodate City)
The final ritual of the festival (Shimodate City)
As the festival begins, the two o-mikoshi and the hime-mikoshi, along with more than 30 children's mikoshi, all take to the streets together. Onlookers are always packed like sardines along both sides of the city's main street.
The festival reaches its climax in the morning of the final day. At 5 am the o-mikoshi are lowered into the waters of the nearby Gogyogawa for a ritual called Kawatogyo, in which the evil spirits and impurities of the everyday world are washed away. They are then carried back to Haguro Shrine, home of Shimodate's guardian deity. The festival finishes at around 8 am.