The Gion Matsuri is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, matsuri in contemporary Shinto. It takes place every summer in Kyoto, with massive processions of decorated floats, called Yamaboko, and also involves processions of mikoshi. The float processions are thought to symbolically purify the city before the mikoshi, carrying the kami, also process, and the procession of the kami is thought to increase their power before the final ritual that closes the week of ceremonies. It is one of the main tourist attractions in Kyoto, and it is even more difficult than usual to book accommodation in the city when it happens. I really should write a Patreon essay about it at some point.
The matsuri is now associated with Yasaka Jinja, which was previously known as Gionsha. However, “Gion” is a Buddhist term, and so when the Meiji government separated Shinto and Buddhism, the jinja had to come up with a new name, and change the venerated kami from Gozu Tennō (Ox-Headed Heaven King) to something from Shinto — in this case, there was an existing association with Susano’o. (My understanding is that the jinja does not run the whole of the festival, but rather is responsible for the specifically Shinto elements. If I do write a proper essay, I will have to find out the details.)
However, this year the matsuri is largely suspended, because large crowds of people are not a good idea in the middle of a pandemic.
This is ironic, because the matsuri originated in prayers to stop an epidemic, in the ninth century.
The priests at the Yasaka Jinja recognised the irony of cancelling a matsuri held to ward off diseases because of a disease, and so they have held smaller matsuri, the Gion Goryōë, to pray for an end to the pandemic, and these matsuri have been reported in Jinja Shinpō. (I think I have mentioned them.)
The most recent issue reports the third of these, held on the site that is said to be the location of the first “Gion Matsuri”, or rather of the ceremony that developed into the Gion Matsuri. This place is called “Shinsen’en”, or “Garden of the Spring of the Kami”, and it is now managed by a Buddhist temple. This ceremony was thus performed according to both Shinto and Buddhist rituals, and apparently this is the first time it has been done this way since the Meiji Revolution.
The participants gathered at the temple, and then processed through the garden to a jinja, Zen’nyoryūōsha (“Good Woman Dragon Monarch Jinja”), where the ceremony was to be performed.
The first step was purification, which started with the burning of a plant, okera, said to be effective for these purposes. (This is not standard in contemporary Shinto.) This was followed by everyone present, included the Buddhist monks, reciting the Ōharaëkotoba, the most important purification prayer in Shinto.
Next, the priests went to a spot in front of the main sanctuary of the jinja, and called down Susano’o and Somin Shōrai, the kami who were to be venerated in the ritual. (And not the kami of the jinja where it was being performed.)
After that, the chief monk of the temple went forward, and performed some Buddhist ceremonies that I do not know anything about — even how to read the kanji — and read a sutra, before reciting the mantra of Yakushi Buddha (Bhaiṣajyaguru, according to Wikipedia). The monk is specifically described as paying his respects in a slightly unusual way: two deep bows, two claps, and one moderate bow. Normally, all the bows are deep.
The Shinto ceremony happened next, in the normal way, with a special offering of millet cake, an offering based on the legend of Somin Shōrai (which I have talked about before). The chief priest of Yasaka Jinja recited a norito asking for the end of the pandemic, and then the priests used water from the pond beneath Zen’nyoryūōsha (which is called Ryūketsu, or “Dragon Hole”) to perform a purification.
Next, miko from Yasaka Jinja performed a kagura based on the tanka written by Susano’o in the myths, in the prayer hall of Zen’nyoryūōsha. (This is not one of the standard miko kagura, and may have been created for Yasaka Jinja.) Finally, everyone, including the monks, offered tamagushi, and the ceremony ended.
Obviously, the biggest point of interest here is the merger of Shinto and Buddhism. This is still rare in contemporary Japanese practice, but it does seem to be becoming more common, and more accepted by the establishments of both religions. (At least in some varieties of Buddhism; there are varieties of Japanese Buddhism that have always been hostile to Shinto.) Personally, I find the fact that they basically borrowed one kami’s jinja to honour two other kami almost as intriguing. There are other examples of a similar form of matsuri, but it is not common.
I do not have space here to say much more about this ceremony, but it is a very good example of the diversity of Shinto.