A short walk up aged stone steps, past the vermilion-lacquered gate and down a cobble-stone path is a silent world where the noisy city streets have faded away like a dream. Long known as "Gion-san" to locals, Yasaka Shrine is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Kyoto and is home to the guardian deity of the district. This belief dates back to the second year of the reign of Emperor Saimei (656 AD), and the shrine was later renamed to Yasaka Shrine in the Meiji Period.
Yasaka Shrine is associated with several famous figures in Japanese mythology including Susanoo-no-mikoto, Kushinadahime-no-mikoto (the princess of Susanoo-no-mikoto), and Yahashira-no-mikogami (one of Susanoo-no-mikoto's eight children). In particular, Susanoo-no-mikoto is well-known in Japanese mythology for defeating Yamata-no-orochi (a legendary large serpent with eight heads representing great disaster). Yasaka Shrine is the head shrine of those dedicated to Susanoo-no-mikoto, with a further 3,000 satellite Shinto shrines dedicated to this mythological figure.
Gion Matsuri is considered one of the three biggest classic festivals in Japan (the remaining two are Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka and the Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo) and it is a Shinto religious ceremony associated with Yasaka Shrine. It is said that the festival got its start in 869 AD during the Heian Period, when there was a severe plague in the capital city of Kyoto. On that occasion, 66 lances were placed point up in a large garden-like park known as Shinsen-en, and prayers were given to Susanoo-no-mikoto, the guardian deity of Kyoto, pleading for relief from the epidemic in a ceremony known as the "Gion Goryo-e." In 1467 there was a temporary interruption during the years of the internal disturbance known as the Onin-no-ran, but in 1500 the festival was revived by a city merchant named Machi Shu. Since then, tapestries and other ornaments imported from China, Persia and Belgium, etc. have been employed to decorate the floats used in the festival, and these grand decorations led to the event being described as a "Moving art museum." The festival is held for a month every year from July 1st through July 31st with several events held at the shrine and other various places within Kyoto, but the climax of the festival is the Yamaboko-junko float parade and the Shinkosai ceremony held on the 17th of July.
In addition, there is a Shinto ceremony called the "Okera-mairi" held from the last day of the year through the first dawn of New Year's Day. Visitors to this ceremony carry straw ropes that are lit like fuses in holy shrine lanterns, and prayers are made to the deity for this holy fire to never to be extinguished. Later, these straw ropes, still glowing with the embers of holy fire, are taken home to make soup with boiled rice cakes and vegetables for the New Year’s Day feast in a belief that eating these rice cakes will ensure health for the coming year.