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Festivals of Japan: Gion Matsuri

The Gion Matsuri is a living symbol of Kyoto’s rich history and culture and is a must see festival in July.

By 3 min read

The Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is a month long festival that is one of the biggest and most famous in Japan. The whole month of July is filled with fun festival activities and events ranging from processions and traditional performances to ancient ceremonies.

The festival is held from July 1 to 31 with the main day of the festival being July 17 with a parade of over 30 floats through the streets of Kyoto.

The Gion Matsuri first started in the 9th Century when it is believed it originated from a religious purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. The festival takes its name from the famous Gion district, Kyoto’s exclusive geisha district and is the festival of Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. The festival is now almost 1200 years old and attracts large crowds of spectators every year.

Festival Highlights

The Gion Matsuri gives you the chance to see spectacular festival floats, traditional Japanese performances, summer yukata and sample some of Japan’s finest festival food. The highlight of the festival is the dozens of huge festival floats that are pulled through the streets of Kyoto on July 17, the main festival day, which is called Yamaboko Junkō. The festival floats depict ancient themes and are elaborately decorated. The procession of floats takes place between 9:00 and 11:30 am.

There are a total of 32 floats consisting of two different types called yama and hoko, which together are commonly called Yamaboko. The 23 yama floats depict scenes from Japanese and Chinese history and mythology. The 9 hoko floats are truly impressive at up to 25 meters tall and weighing up to 12 tonnes. They are sometimes called ‘mobile art museums’ due to their exquisite craftwork and sculptures. The hoko floats are so massive that they are pulled by teams of up to 50 men.

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The three evenings proceeding the main festival day called yoiyama (festival eve) are also exciting with night street stalls lining Shijo-dori selling popular festival food such as yakitori, takoyaki, okonomiyaki and taiyaki. Many people dressed in beautiful yukata to walk around the area and admire the festival floats, which are displayed near the intersection of Karasuma and Shijo streets. The atmosphere is electric with all the crowds and festival music known as Gion-bayashi, which can be heard all over the town streets.

The procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) is also very impressive and takes place from 6:00 pm on July 17 from Yasaka Shrine. The Gion Matsuri is a living symbol of Kyoto’s rich history and culture and is a must see festival in July.

Festival Information:

Location: Shijo and Karasumae Area of Kyoto
When: July 1st – 31st
Time: Times vary according to the event with the main festival day on July 17
Cost: FREE but paid seating is also available (reservation in advance)

Access:

You can reach Kyoto from Tokyo on the JR Tokaido Shinkansen with the fastest Nozomi train taking 140 minutes. You can access the festival location(s) depending on the day you visit at the following stations: Shijo, Karasuma, Kawaramachi, Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae and Karasuma-Oike

Schedule of Major Events:

July 1-5: Opening Ceremony of the Festival
July 10: Lantern parade to welcome mikoshi portable shrines
July 10: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo River
July 10-14: Yama & Hoko Float Construction
July 12-14: Trial Pulling of the newly constructed floats
July 14-16: Yoiyama (Festival Eve)
July 14-16: Byobu Matsuri (folding screen display)
July 15: Traditional Japanese Entertainment Performance
July 16: Kencha Matsuri (tea ceremony festival)
July 16: Iwami Kagura (ancient court dance)
July 17: Yamaboko Junko (grand parade of yamaboko floats)
July 17: Parade of mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the city
July 24: Hanagasa Junko (flower umbrella procession)
July 25: Kyogen Performance
July 28: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo river
July 31: Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony)
July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine

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  • Matteo says:

    we will be in kyoto from 28 july.
    what shall we do to attend the

    July 28: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo river
    July 31: Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony)
    July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine

    what are they?

    thanks!!!

  • papiGiulio says:

    Nice, i’ve always wanted to visit the Gion Matsuri but it’s always too damn crowded. I know most matsuri’s are crowded and this is Japan, but Gion takes the cake.

    • Yes, definitely one of the most crowded and popular festivals in Japan. The crowds are part of the fun for me as they make the atmosphere electric and add to the fun of the festival.

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