Enjoy traditional fanfare with plenty of modern comforts during Kyoto’s world-famous Gion Matsuri.
Kyoto is undoubtedly one of Japan’s most attractive cities for domestic and international tourists, and the city’s many pleasures are on full display throughout July, when travellers from near and far come to participate in the month-long Gion Matsuri. The festival began in the year 869, when the emperor ordered prayers and held festivities to appease the gods at the Yasaka Shrine during a terrible plague. A lot has changed with the modern version, but, amazingly, the festival itself has been celebrated almost every single year since the start, in the face of many fires, floods and battles. The only break in its millennium-plus history was a 33-year hiatus during the Onin Wars. Today, the festival is a mix of spiritual ritual and rowdy street party that takes place throughout the entire month, culminating in a giant, iconic parade on July 17.
Though the big parade is a draw for many, there are events all month long to please the out-of-towner with an appreciation for smaller-scale pleasures. Highlights include a Lantern Reception with beautiful dancing and costumes, along with the purification of a portable mikoshi shrine (July 10), and the visit of a chigo, or “sacred child” chosen from an elite family, who visits Yasaka Shrine on July 13 and isn’t allowed to set foot on the ground until after he is carried through town in the parade on July 17. The parade itself, or Yamaboko junko (山鉾巡行), is named after the procession’s two different types of floats, the “yama” and “boko,” which are pulled on wheels the size of full-grown adults.
The largest float weighs in at twelve tons, and each one is hand-assembled on the downtown streets of Kyoto without the use of a single nail or screw. Tourists can watch the assembly process from July 10 to 14, then see the floats on display for the next three days—you can even walk into some of them.
The evenings also ramp up on the three pre-parade nights, as streets are blocked off to vehicle traffic and festival stalls pop up everywhere plying delicious food and drink beginning on Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14), Yoiyoi- yama (July 15) and Yoiyama (July 16). Visitors arriving around this time can also enjoy the Byobu Matsuri, when local residents in some of Kyoto’s oldest houses let travellers get a brief view of their gorgeous folding screens and other antique family heirlooms. There is also a smaller-scale parade on July 24, called the ato matsuri, or “after-festival” parade.
During the height of Gion Matsuri, the streets are filled with men and women of all ages celebrating late into the humid night, and many festival-goers wear colourfulyukata, lightweight cotton kimonos printed with gorgeous traditional patterns. The sight of all this activity, and the celebratory atmosphere, is enough to make you feel like you’ve been transported back in time.
Go above and Gion
While there’s plenty of cutting-edge pop culture to see in Japan, Gion Matsuri is truly your opportunity to explore the country’s rich history. Just follow these three tips:
DO stay a while
There’s so much to see and do in Kyoto in July. If you’re planning a trip, be sure to book plenty of playtime.
DO try on traditional garb
You can meet maiko and even try on traditional yukata at several Kyoto shops—so go on, play dress-up.
DO take selfies
Don’t worry about your yukata not having pockets for your phone— stash it in your collar or rent a cute decorative bag.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe