Every year in July the area around Shijo Karasuma in Kyoto is filled to the seams, bursting with people who’ve come to see the famous Gion matsuri, one of the biggest festivals in Japan. There are lots of events happening throughout the month but the main part of Gion matsuri revolves around Shijo street and the parade.
Before the parade itself, held on the 17th of July, for three nights, Shijo street and the surrounding roads are all blocked off to traffic so that thousands of people can fill the streets to see the Yama and Hoko – the floats that parade through the street during the event. This is called the “yoiyama” and is always my favourite part of the festival.
The streets are lined with festival stalls selling all the usual festival food treats, from meat on sticks to okonomiyaki and yakisoba, crushed ice to beer and of course toy fans and masks. My favorite stalls are the various festival games you can play. There are rifle games where you have to knock prizes over to win them and the popular Japanese game where you have a plastic circle with a thin sheet of paper inside which you use to pick up some plastic balls until the paper dissolves and you get prizes based on how many you manage to pick up before it does. You use the same thing to catch goldfish at another stall – though make sure to have a big enough tank to keep them in when you get home to make sure they survive!
The Yama and Hoko are great to see, the Hoko are the bigger 2 storey floats and during the yoiyama you can even go into the top levels for a closer look – though only if you’re a man! Women aren’t allowed to go into the float. As you walk through the festival you can see the teams of men from each float playing drums and flutes, each float having a few different tunes they cycle through.
After the few nights of revelry is the big parade, the floats move down Shijo street and eventually down to Yasaka shrine. Be sure to get a spot along Shijo street early though as the parade route gets pretty packed! As it’s one of the 3 biggest festivals in Japan make sure not to miss it!