The Gion Matsuri, the most important festival of the year in Kyoto takes place in July. This is not just Kyoto’s biggest festival, it’s one of Japan’s biggest annual events. It’s a month-long series of events, with numerous events and ceremonies preceding the big day, the spectacular Yamaboko Junko (floats parade) that will travel in procession through downtown Kyoto on the festival day itself (July 17).
There are so many events, it’s not obvious to know where to go, when to go, what to see, how to see it, etc. We’ve tried to put together some information to help our guests visiting the city for the first time.
July 10 (16:30 - 21:00): Omukae-Chochin (Welcoming Lanterns Ceremony)
Omukae-Chochin, the Welcoming Lanterns Ceremony, is the event to greet the purified Mikoshi after a cleansing ritual. A large procession will start from Yasaka Jinja Shrine at 16:30, goes along Shijo Street, Kawaramachi Street, Oike Street, Teramachi Street, and return to the Yasaka Jinja Shrine at 20:30.
The procession is made up by numerous children dressed up as white herons, girls wearing white make up, little boys wearing samurai outfil, and more. The Omukae Chochin parade is a very colorful event and one of the first public one of the festival.
July 10 (18:30 - 20:30): Mikoshi-arai (Purification of Portable Shrine)
July 10 to 13: Construction of the floats (Hoko-tate, Yama-tate)
The construction of most of the large Haka floats will start on July 10 or 11 in the morning, with the test run taking place on July 12 or 13, early afternoon. Visitors can board the Hoko on July 13 and 14 (purchase of a ticket or an amulet (Chimaki) or other is required to get aboard.)
The construction of the smaller Yama starts on July 11, 12 or 13. Some test runs are taking place on July 13.
July 14 to 16 (18:00 - 23:00): Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama and Yoiyama
On the three nights leading up to the Yamaboko Junko, the main Gion Matsuri Float Procession (taking place on July 17), the various floats are displayed on Shijo-dori Street and on nearby downtown streets. The streets are closed to vehicle traffic and people walk around the streets, many dressed in yukata (lightweight summer kimono). Street stalls sell food and drink and the atmosphere is generally fun and festive.
The idea here is to walk around from one spot to another, visiting and looking at the various floats. Some of the local corporations and oldest Kyoto families open their machiya (traditional townhouse) or shops and display their family’s treasures. It’s a unique opportunity to get a sense for Kyoto old culture. Be aware that there are a lot of people around!
July 17 (9:00 - 14:00): Yamaboko Junko, the main parade
The highlight of the festival, the huge Yamaboko Junko procession of all the 23 floats through downtown Kyoto, takes place on the 17th. The procession starts at 9 am at Shijo-Karasuma, heads north along Kawaramachi around 9.45 am, and turns west on Oike around 10.30 am, before ending at Shinmachi at around 11.30 am.
While there are a lot of people (several hundred thousand visitors!), the procession itself is rather long and moves slowly. Many people just watch a few of the Yamaboko (floats) before leaving. We never had any problems finding a spot from where to watch the show. This being said, I’d recommend trying to locate yourself at one of the corners where the floats (which do not have any directional gears) are manually turned by force over bamboos. The procedure is quite impressive considering the size and weight of some of the structures.
July 17 (17:00 - 22:00): Shinko-sai Ceremony
During the Shinko-sai ceremony, deities from the Yasaka Shrine travel to Otabisho (the temporary deity abode) on three gorgeous portable shrines carried by a large number of the shrine parishioners. Upon the departure, all the mikoshi are raised high and rotated in front of the stone steps at the entrance of the shrine, which is a beautiful spectacle. Each mikoshi then takes a different route to the Otabisho. After arriving there, the deities will stay at the temporary adobe until the Kanko-sai ceremony on the 24th.
July 18 - 21: Construction of the floats (Hoko-tate, Yama-tate)
As before the main procession, the construction of the floats for the latter procession will take place between July 18 and 21. Test runs will take place on July 20 et 21.
July 21 to 23 (evening): Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama, Yoi-yoi-yama and Yoi-yama street party
As for the three evenings preceding the former procession, street parties will be held on the three evenings preceding the latter procession taking place on the 24th, namely July 21, 22 and 23.
July 24 (9:00 - 14:00): Yamaboko Junko procession
July 24 (10:00 - 12:00): Hanagasa Junko Procession
The Hanagasa Junko Procession starts from Yasaka Shrine at 10 AM. It’s a colorful parade consisting of a thousand-strong people with parasol-type floats, portable shrines, flower-hatted ladies, samurai, musical bands, dancers and many others in traditional costumes.
The route follows Shijo Street, turns right on Teramachi, then right on Oike Street, then right again on Kawaramachi Street and left on Shijo Street to reach Yasaka Shrine around noon.
This is probably my favorite part of the whole festival due to the variety of people and costumes. Lots of fun. Lots of photo opportunities.
July 24 (17:00 - 23:30): Kanko-sai Ceremony
In the Kanko-sai Ceremony, the deities from Yasaka Shrine temporarily placed at Otablisho during the festival, are returned to the shrine on the three mikoshi. Back at the shrine, the mikoshi make three circuits and perform a valiant high-raising. Around midnight, the deities placed on the mikoshi move back to the main shrine.