Kyoto (京都) is the perfect destination to experience different festivals during varying seasons in Japan. It is also one of the places each tourist should visit when visiting the country. It is quieter and quainter than other cities in the country and is surrounded by very rich culture and tradition. If you plan to visit the place, here are 5 of the traditional festivals you should watch out for!
The Oukasai Cherry Blossoms Festival is held every 10th of April at Hirano Jinja (平野神社) in Kyoto, a famous shrine built by Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇) in 794. Hirano Jinja enshrines 4 significant deities in the country: Imakinosume Okami (今木皇大神), Kudono Okami (久度大神), Furuakino Okami (古開大神), and Himeno Okami (比売大神). It is said that it used to have as large an area as the Imperial Palace and has been a perfect site for cherry blossom trees. It is also said to have 1,000 years of history since the trees were planted and it became a perfect spot for cherry blossom viewing during spring. There are around 60 species of more than 400 cherry blossom trees in the place. These blossoms are best enjoyed from the end of March to early May.
The Oukasai Festival consists of a procession of about 250 people dressed in historical costumes parading the whole place. During the Edo Period (江戸時代), the shrine was popularly called as “Hirano-no Yozakura (平野の夜桜)” which literally means “Night Cherry Blossoms of Hirano.” The shrine has also been called “Shrine for Flower and Female,” thus it is often visited by women who want to get pregnant or have luck in finding the perfect match.
The Aoi Festival, one of the biggest annual festivals in Kyoto, is held every 15th of May. It is an ancient festival full of elegance with a magnificent procession dating back 1,000 years ago. The festival name comes from the Japanese word “aoi” which are leaves used not only on people’s costumes but also as ornaments. Around 500 people wear traditional costumes and parade through the streets. The route of this festival’s parade starts at the Kyoto Imperial Palace (京都御所), then goes to Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社), and finally ends at Kamigamo Shrine (上賀茂神社).
It is said that this festival started during the Heian Period wherein aristocratic society was flourishing in the country. As a highlight of this happening in the past, people dress up in gorgeous costumes as they relive the moment of delivering the Emperor’s message and bringing in offerings to the shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo.
One of the highlights of the procession is the messenger riding a horse with a golden sword at his side. He is followed by attendants. The selected unmarried women of Kyoto that are part of the parade are also seen as an important highlight. They dress in the formal style of the Imperial Court which literally means wearing 12 layers of kimono (十二単)!
Another famous festival in Kyoto is the Gion Festival that takes place during the whole month of July every year, with its main processions on the 17th and 24th. This is actually a traditional festival of Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) which has been carried on since the 9th century. It is believed to have been organized to prevent calamities such as fire, floods, and earthquakes.
So much preparation is done before the big event that even Kyoto’s downtown area is reserved for pedestrian traffic on the 3 nights leading to the grand parade. The 3 nights leading to the parade are known as “yoiyama – 宵山” (July 16 and 23), “yoiyoiyama – 宵々山” (July 15 and 22), and “yoiyoiyoiyama – 宵々々山” (July 14 and 21). At these times, the streets are full of stalls lining and selling different street foods such as takoyaki (たこ焼き), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), yakitori (焼き鳥), and much more!
Girls walk around the area wearing the traditional summer kimono (着物), yukata (浴衣). It is also interesting to see some traditional Japanese residences that open up their doors and show their family heirlooms. It is a great opportunity to enjoy local Japanese food while getting to know several traditional elements of Kyoto.
Gozan no Okuribi or Daimonji no Okuribi is a festival held on the 16th of August in Kyoto. Spectacular okuribi bonfires are lit on the mountains of Kyoto as a signal for the end of summer. The fires depict gigantic Chinese characters which are popular images evoking the summer nights in Kyoto.
The actual origin of the event is unknown and there are several interpretations of it. Japanese people believe that their ancestors visit them from the afterlife during Obon Festival. Since Daimonji is a culmination of the Obon, they believe that the light is lit to give brightness to the gate as a sign of sending off their ancestors’ souls. There are specific families who are duly appointed to organize the different bonfires in order to maintain the tradition. Each bonfire is set to last for 30 minutes or so.
If you’re planning to visit Kyoto during the autumn season, then you shouldn’t miss the Jidai Festival on the 22nd of October which is one of the recommended festivals to watch out for in the area. It is a historical reenactment parade which is participated by different people of all ages who are dressed in authentic costumes from the Japanese feudal times. Important people of the Kyoto history are also represented by some participants so as to give them honor.
The parade begins early in the morning wherein portable shrines are first brought to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It is followed by a 3-hour long procession in the afternoon where you can see 2,000 performers dressed as samurais, common people, military figures, and so on. The procession ends at the Heian Shrine (平安神宮) which is listed as an Important Cultural Property of Japan.
Enjoy the beautiful history of Kyoto by joining in one of these traditional festivals. They occur during different seasons and times of the year, so you’ll surely be able to participate in any of them.