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Festivals and celebrations are an important part of every country’s culture and identity. For visitors, festivals provide the perfect window into a culture and their traditions that is hard to come by on just a normal day. That’s why we think experiencing festivals while traveling is a great idea, and our favorite place to enjoy festivals in Japan is Kyoto.
Of Kyoto's many festivals, there are three main matsuri (the Japanese word for festival) that we will discuss in this article. First, there is the Aoi Matsuri where visitors can watch a lively parade travel through the city, with men on horseback and women dressed in beautiful kimonos. There is also Gion Matsuri, which is one of the most famous festivals in Japan, where visitors can try some good food and watch the floats go by. Lastly, there is Jidai Matsuri where onlookers can watch a procession of people dressed up as famous characters from Japanese history.
Below, we will go into more detail about these incredible festivals, including the history behind them, the main events and activities, and where you can celebrate them.
When: May 15
Aoi Matsuri, or the Hollyhock Festival, is one of Kyoto's three main festivals. The festival's main attraction is a large parade in which over 500 people take part, all dressed in an aristocratic style dating back to the Heian Period (794 - 1185). The festival is named after the Hollyhock leaves that are worn by members of this procession.
Although the exact dates remain unknown, Aoi Matsuri is believed to have begun in the 7th century, predating Kyoto's establishment as the national capital in 794. Natural disasters — believed to have been caused by the deities of the Kamo Shrines — kept occurring at the time. Legend has it that after the Emperor made offerings to these deities, the disasters subsided. Thus, a new tradition was born.
The festival's official name remains Kamo Matsuri today, due to its long-standing association with the shrines.
The festival grew in such prominence during the Heian Period that the word festival became synonymous with Aoi Matsuri.
Today, a huge procession takes place to highlight the high regard in which the festival would have been held, back in the day. You can see men on horseback, giant bouquets of flowers, exquisitely decorated ox-drawn carts, and a large number of women dressed in kimonos accompanying the year's Saio.
Traditionally, the Saio was a young female member of the imperial family who served as the high priestess of the Kamo Shrines and performed rituals. Today, a different unmarried woman from Kyoto is selected each year to serve as Saio. She must go through purification ceremonies before the festival, before being allowed to take part in the procession.
The Aoi Matsuri procession begins at 10:30 in the morning at the southern gate of the Imperial Palace, before crossing the river in front of Shimogamo Shrine at 11:15. Ceremonies are performed within the shrine for about two hours, before the procession departs for Kamigamo Shrine, where the head of the parade arrives around 3:30 in the afternoon.
Only paid seating is available at the Imperial Palace and Kamo Shrines. As such, it is advised to arrive early if you wish to see the parade in either of these two locations. The rest of the route is certainly not as crowded but does not provide the same lively atmosphere either.
Watching the entire parade pass by, from beginning to end, takes approximately one hour.
In the days preceding the festival, related events, such as horse races and the purification of the Saio, take place at the Kamo Shrines.
When: All of July, especially 14-17th of the month.
Gion Matsuri, the festival of Yasaka Shrine, is the most famous festival in Japan. Taking place over the entire month of July, the festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods, and earthquakes. Over time, the festival became overseen by the city's wealthy class of merchants, an arrangement that is still in place today.
Although there are several different special events, the grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) on July 17 is especially magnificent. Also enjoyable are the festive evenings preceding the procession (Yoiyama).
In 2014, a second procession of floats was reintroduced on July 24, after a hiatus of 48 years. This second procession features fewer and smaller floats than the grand procession on July 17.
The festival takes its name from Kyoto's Gion district and can be dated back to the 9th century.
Gion Matsuri has had a long and uninterrupted history, dating back to 869, when it started as a religious ceremony designed to appease the gods during the outbreak of an epidemic.
Even today, the festival maintains its long-standing practice of selecting a local boy to be the divine messenger. The child cannot set foot on the ground from the 13th until after he has been paraded through the town on the 17th.
The grand procession, known as the Yamaboko Junko, refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: the 23 Yama and 10 Hoko. One of the primary reasons behind the Gion Matsuri being as impressive as it is, is the enormity of the Hoko, which can be up to 25 meters in height and weigh as much as 12 tons. Both Yama and Hoko are elaborately decorated and represent unique themes.
While the festival's main event is the Yamaboko that showcases dozens of beautifully decorated floats, Gion Matsuri also serves as a huge block party in which locals and visitors gather to promenade in colorful yukata robes and gorge themselves on street food and beer. Food and drink stalls pop up all over the city, providing visitors with the chance to sample some of Kyoto's finest festival delicacies.
Traditional musicians and performers can also be seen accompanying the parade, helping to create the buoyant atmosphere the event is famed for.
Even though the inclusion of the word 'Gion' in Gion Matsuri suggests the festival takes place in the Gion district, it actually takes place on the opposite side of the Kamo River. During the three days preceding the procession, the Yama and Hoko are displayed within about a half-kilometer of the intersection of Karasuma and Shijo streets.
The area becomes most exciting from 6 in the evenings until 11 at night, when it is entirely closed to traffic, swelling with food stands and drink vendors. These festive evenings leading up to the procession are known as Yoiyama (July 16), Yoiyoiyama (July 15), and Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14). Do note, however, that road closures happen on the 15th and 16th only.
Similar festivities also take place on the three evenings leading up to the procession on July 24, albeit on a much smaller scale, with fewer road closures and fewer food vendors.
The Yamaboko Junko (processions of floats) takes place between 9 and 11:30 in the morning on the 17th and 24th, and they follow a three-kilometer long route along Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike streets (starting from Shiko-Karasuma on the 17th and from Karasuma-Oike on the 24th).
Limited paid seating is available in front of the city hall for those wishing to see the Yamaboko Junko. It is worth mentioning, however, that since the procession takes place over quite a long route and duration, plenty of good viewpoints can also be found elsewhere without too much trouble.
When: October 22 (anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto)
Jidai Matsuri, also known as "Festival of Ages", consists of a large parade that travels from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine. The participants of the parade are dressed in costumes dating back to almost every period in Japanese history.
With over 2000 participants, the parade starts from the domination era of the aristocracy, through the domination era of the samurai, and to the era of the Meiji Restoration.
The Heian Shrine holds the Jidai Matsuri, and both the festival and the shrine were established in 1895 to celebrate Kyoto's long history and rich culture. A few years before, in 1868, the capital was moved to Tokyo after having been in Kyoto for over a thousand years.
The historically accurate costumes and characters that one can see in the parade cover the approximately 1100 years during which Kyoto was the national capital of the country.
The procession is separated into historical eras and then further separated into themes, of which there are about twenty. The parade begins with characters from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and then continues in reverse chronological order until the beginning of the Heian Period in 781.
The parade is also important in terms of Shinto rituals. A large number of attendants accompany and carry two portable shrines that contain the spirits of Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei (the first and last emperors to reign from Kyoto, respectively). Heian Shrine is dedicated to these two emperors, and their spirits reside in the shrine. However, during Jidai Matsuri, their spirits are able to roam about freely in the city.
The festival’s honorary commissioners, riding in horse-drawn carriages reminiscent of the mid-1800s, head the parade. The commissioners include figures like the governor of Kyoto Prefecture, the mayor of the city, and the city council chairman. Following them are figures of the Meiji Restoration.
There is a marching band with drums and flutes and soldiers who would've fought with the imperial forces, as well as some of the era's most notable figures, like Sakamoto Ryoma.
The largest group in the procession is designed to depict the extravagant convoys sent by the shogun to represent him at important imperial ceremonies in Kyoto during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). This includes important officials, attendants for those officials, and famous women from the period.
As the parade continues, spectators are able to see the armor of Oda Nobunaga and his commanders, the dress of warriors and common people of the Muromachi Period (1338 - 1573), more famous historical women, and nobles of the Heian Period (794 - 1185). Costumes and characters of the aristocrats, military, and common people are all put on display.
The parade departs from the Imperial Palace, travels along Oike Street and Sanjo Street, and finally ends at Heian Shrine. The entire route of the parade stretches about five kilometers.
Crowds are densest at the Imperial Palace and on the approach to Heian Shrine, where spectators show up early to get a spot. In addition to the regular viewing spots lining the parade route, there are also sections of reserved seats at the shrine, the palace and on the streets.
It takes about two hours to watch the entire parade pass by.
Kyoto is packed with interesting festivals and events. Visit the city and experience them firsthand by allowing Asia Highlights to plan the perfect Kyoto trip for you and your loved ones.