The Gion Festival, or Gion Matsuri, is a famous yearly festival in Kyoto which draws crowds of visitors to downtown Kyoto. Dating back to 650 years in Japan’s history, this festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods that caused disasters such as plagues and earthquakes.
Today, the Gion Festival continues to be held annually throughout the month of July, with the main procession happening every July 17th. In recent years, a second procession was re-introduced to the festival for the following week on July 24th. For those wishing to travel to Kyoto and experience the festivities in person, here are some tips and suggestions to help ensure you have a good experience.
Some people purchase tickets in advance for seating in cordoned-off sections on the side of the parade streets, but the majority of parade attendance is in free public space. It can be difficult for foreign visitors to get paid seating tickets, as tickets are primarily sold through Japanese outlets such as convenience stores. However there are pros and cons to both seating arrangements.
Unless you have taken the trouble to get seating tickets in advance, you should plan for being in the free spacing.
- If you want to stand near the intersections to view the Tsujimawashi (turning of floats), plan to arrive early – by 8:00 AM, curbside space will be occupied.
- Throughout the parade route there are three intersections in which the floats will turn. If you want to view the float turning , you have three main areas to view from.
- If you do not wish to watch the float turning, close public viewing is more easily available in areas far from the intersections, so you can arrive from 8:00 to 8:30 AM and still get to stand in the front row.
- If you’re only interested in seeing part of the procession, be ready to pass through crowds when leaving the area. If you’re on the interior of the parade route, you will have to travel through the underground passes to cross the street.
- It is advisable to bring along a portable fan, hat, and water to keep refreshed while viewing the parade.
- There is an informal rule where you can sit provided that you are at the front of the crowd.
- Stay hydrated as it is midsummer. Japan’s summer peaks in August, and it will continue to get warmer over the month of July. Additionally, Kyoto is surrounded by hills and mountains, limiting airflow into the city which can mean a more humid summer.
- Follow the posted instructions near parade space and respect the space of other attendants.
The procession starts at around 9:00 AM with the entire procession ending in the early afternoon around 2:00 PM.
There are many places in the vicinity of the Gion Matsuri procession where you can have your lunch. You should plan your itinerary accordingly as the last event of the day starts at 6:00 PM with the Mikoshi Procession, or Shinko-sai at Yasaka Shrine.
Be aware that there will be large crowds in downtown Kyoto during this period, so local food destinations, especially famous locations such as Gion Tsujiri and their famous green tea desserts will likely have a long queue time.
While waiting for the Shinko-sai, you can visit Yasaka Shrine. The shrine grounds are a large complex which connect to several nearby areas such as the Maruyama Park, which provides a relaxing destination for walking. If you don’t wish to walk far, the Kamo river is a refreshing place where you can stay close to the festivities.
Another interesting Kyoto destination is the Japan Kanji Museum & Library where there will be digital displays showing explanations on the floats and videos of the previous Gion Matsuri, accompanied by interesting illustrations and music!
During the Shinko-sai, three portable shrines are carried to Yasaka Shrine before being returned to their original homes around Kyoto. Seating is also competitive for this procession, so plan to come early if you want to find a good viewing spot.
The procession starts from inside of the shrine where they perform rituals before heading to the front of the shrine where a few more rituals are performed. The three portable shrines then proceed to their different routes which extends all the way to Matsubara Street and Kyoto City Hall.
You can view the 2017 Shinko-sai here:
Festivals in Japan draw crowds of both Japanese and foreign visitors alike. But as long as you come prepared, you can keep cool and enjoy this centuries-old festival.
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