Festivals & Events
The Gion Matsuri dominates the festival calendar in Japan. It's the country's biggest festival, has been held every year since 869, and turns the city into a huge block party, especially during the two periods in mid-July when the giant floats are displayed and then pulled through the streets.
Locals and visitors alike feast and drink late into the night during the three-day runups to the parades of spectacular multi-ton floats. Locals celebrate Kyoto's culture and wealth by showing off their possessions during the related Byobu Matsuri.
The Gion Matsuri takes place around the center of Kyoto, and can be easily accessed by subway, bus, taxi or on foot.
The main celebrations of the festival are centered around Shijo, Kawaramachi and Oike streets. It is relatively easy to find a spot to watch the parade from along the route, provided you pay attention to potential road closures.
The festival reportedly began as a purification ritual
The floats in the parade weigh up to 12 tons
The people of Kyoto and visitors have thrilled to the Gion Matsuri since 869, when it was held to appease the gods during an epidemic. A local boy is still chosen as a sacred messenger to the gods. Seated on one of the many elaborate floats, his feet do not touch the ground from the 13th until the first parade ends on the 17th.
There are two types of floats, yama and hoko. The latter can be up to 25 meters tall and weigh up to 12 tons. Both yama and hoko are elaborately decorated and have unique themes. Adorned with exquisite craftwork such as woven fabric, dyed textiles and sculptures, they're so gorgeous that they are sometimes called "mobile art museums."
There are actually two parades, with the one on July 17 the largest of the two with 23 floats, and the second on July 24 with about half that number.
Each parade is preceded by three evenings of celebration known as Yoiyama. These three nights allow people to visit the floats, buy good luck charms called chimaki and enjoy local street food. An ideal way to spend the hot and humid Kyoto evenings is to join the locals in their colorful cotton yukata robes and soak up the long history of this traditional Kyoto festival.
A customary event known as the Byobu Matsuri or Folding Screen Festival, takes place during the Yoiyama days of the festival. Wealthy families in the Shinmachi and Muromachi areas show off their private treasures such as screens and kimonos, displaying them in front of their houses or even welcoming people into their homes for a viewing, and local merchants also exhibit their art collections.