Gion Matsuri is the biggest festival in Kyoto. It runs during the whole month of July during which a variety of ceremonies and processions are conducted. It originated at the time plague attacked not only the city but swept through the whole country in the 9th century. People’s only defense was prayer.
They were convinced that the plague had been caused by a curse of the god Gozu-daiou and attended the Yasaka Shrine, where the god is enshrined, to pray for deliverance from the disaster. 66 halberd or hoko were stood at Shinsen-en garden to honour of the god of Yasaka and portable shrines were carried as well. It was called “Goryo-e” and was the origin of the festival. 66 floats each with a spear (hence the term hoko also applying to the float itself) were built, to represent the number of countries in those days and it was believed that hoko, which have sharp ends, would be suitable dwelling places for the spirits. Although there were breaks during the Onin War(1467-1477) and Second World War, it has otherwise been held annually for over 1,000 years.
The festivals are divided into 4 major parts: processions, bearing portable shrines, dedication rituals and ceremonies of the shrine. The most well-known part of the festival is a procession of hoko or floats which is held on the 17th of July. There are two types of hoko floats; one, hoko or halberd is larger and represents the original hoko used in the original ritual, the other, yama is smaller in size and usually carry historical figures and some carry figures based on mythology. Floats are built between the 10th and 13th of July and they are displayed on the street in the community each belongs to.
For three nights preceding the procession through central Kyoto the floats are decorated and hung with large numbers of lighted lanterns. People throng the streets strolling from float to float enjoying the festive atmosphere, playing games and eating at many stalls set up along streets during this time.
Especially the night before the procession, many of marchants' houses are open-fronted and display their treasure in the front room. It’s also called "Byobu Matsuri", literally meaning a folding screen festival. That is one of the great pleasures of the festival, to see the treasure and fine merchants' houses normally hidden.
(written with the big help of my friend)