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Gion Matsuri Guide (July 2023): Access and Tips on Enjoying One of Japan’s Three Great Festivals

Gion Matsuri Guide (July 2023): Access and Tips on Enjoying One of Japan’s Three Great Festivals

Date published: 29 May 2020
Last updated: 21 April 2022

Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri is a festival filled with traditional flair that’s sure to please any visitor to Japan. Starting on July 1 every year, the festival runs for a full month. The rhythmic sound of the Kane bells being played by the Hayashi performers are one of the many memorable scenes that you can experience at Gion Matsuri.

Starting with the highlights, like the Yamaboko-junkō parade during the “Saki-matsuri” on July 17, and the “Ato-matsuri” on July 24, crowds of people visit the various pre-festivals, called “Yoi-yama”, all throughout the month, enveloping Kyoto in a red-hot festival atmosphere!

What is the Gion Matsuri?

The Gion Matsuri, one of the Three Great Festivals of Japan, is one of the festivals held at the famous Yasaka Shrine. During the Heian period, there was a plague sweeping across Japan, which was originally thought to be a curse. The festival was then held to placate the evil spirits responsible for it.

With a proud 1,150-year history, the festival is known far and wide for its long history, extravagance, and for being held for a full month. As a festival that has walked through thick and thin with the city of Kyoto throughout much of its existence, it holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Kyoto.

Getting to the Gion Matsuri: Access

Easily accessible from Hankyu Karasuma Station, or the Kyoto City Subway Karasuma-Oike Station.

2022 Gion Matsuri main event schedule

Gion Matsuri is scheduled to be held in 2022, however the exact schedule is not yet confirmed.
Information below is based on previous years.
(Please note that not all events may be running in 2022.)

July 1 to 18: Kippu-iri
July 2: Kuji-tori-shiki ceremony
July 10: Lantern reception and Mikoshi purification
July 10 to 14: Saki-matsuri – Building of the Yamaboko floats
July 12 and 13: Saki-matsuri – Yamaboko Hikihajime parade
July 14 to 16: Saki-matsuri – Yoi-yama and Byobu Matsuri
July 17: Saki-matsuri – Yamaboko-junkō parade and Shinkōsai
July 18 to 21: Ato-matsuri – Building of the Yamaboko floats
July 20 and 21: Ato-matsuri – Yamaboko Hikihajime parade
July 21 to 23: Ato-matsuri – Yoi-yama and Byobu Matsuri
July 24: Ato-matsuri – Yamaboko-junkō parade, Hanagasa-junkō parade, and Kankōsai
July 28: Mikoshi-arai-shiki ceremony
July 31: Ekijinja-nagoshisai

Top 8 things to see at the Gion Matsuri

Top 8 things to see at the Gion Matsuri

1. Prayers for a smooth festival

The “Kippu-iri” on July 1 marks the start of the Gion Matsuri. Various stakeholders in the Yamaboko district gather and pray for the smooth running of the festival, and meetings regarding the festival are held as well.

2. The Kuji-hiki, a ballot which determines the float order during the Yamaboko-junkō parade

To decide the parade order during the Yamaboko-junkō parade, representatives from the Yamaboko area gather. Together with the mayor of Kyoto City, the “Kuji-tori-shiki” ceremony is held, to determine the order during the Saki-matsuri and Ato-matsuri. Besides the nine floats with a pre-determined order that do not require them to take part in the ceremony, such as the Naginatahoko float, the other 24 places are decided by drawing lots.

3. See the “moving museums” of beautifully and ornately decorated Yamaboko floats

3. See the “moving museums” of beautifully and ornately decorated Yamaboko floats

Of the 33 main Yamaboko floats, 29 are designated Important Tangible Cultural Properties, being decorated with beautiful carpets and tapestries. There are Yamaboko floats that make use of decorations incorporating imported Gobelin weaves and Nishijin weaves, and seeing the beautiful artworks unfold one by one before your eyes as the parade progresses also earned the Yamaboko the name, “moving museums.”

4. Get your hands on the famous chimaki amulets and other goods

One of the famous items of the Gion Matsuri is the Chimaki. It’s not a type of food, but an amulet for warding off bad luck and disease that’s made of bamboo grass, and each Yamaboko has its own Chimaki with unique designs and purposes. In Kyoto, there are many families who place this amulet at their doorways to ward off bad luck too. Besides this, there are many goods and items showcasing the unique aspect of each Yamaboko on sale too, so do drop by the district office to take a look.

5. You can ride the Yamaboko floats before the parade!

By purchasing either the Yamaboko float’s chimaki amulets or a riding ticket, you can ride the Yamaboko float. From the construction of the ceiling to the head of the float, you can see the details of each and every decoration used, so do be sure to make good use of the opportunity. The boarding procedure is smoother during the day than at night, so be sure to make good use of the opportunity.

6. The largest event before the Yoi-yama, the Yamaboko Hikihajime

The floats built for the Yamaboko-junkō parade, known as Hoko or Hikiyama, are tested for their movement and parade-worthiness during the Yamaboko Hikihajime, held on July 12 and 13 for the Saki-matsuri, and July 20 and 21 for the Ato-matsuri. Besides the Yamaboko-junkō parade, the Yamaboko Hikihajime is the only other time to see the floats in action. The floats also move at around walking speed, allowing you to feel the immense size of the floats up close, making for quite an unforgettable experience.

7. Enjoy the height of the festival at the “Yoi-yama”!

The Yoi-yama is held three days, two days, and the day before the Yamaboko-junkō parade, in Shijo-dōri where the Yamaboko floats stand towering over the small exhibits and shops lining the road.

The Yoi-yama for the Saki-matsuri, held on July 15 and 16, is a heaven for street pedestrians, with the “kon-chinki” sounds from the Gion Hayashi musicians filling the skies, and the sight of lit Komagata lanterns make for a wonderful festival atmosphere!

The Yoi-yama during the Ato-matsuri from July 21 to July 23 has a much calmer atmosphere in contrast, allowing you to relax in the serene mood.

8. Be sure not to miss the festival's highlight - the Yamaboko-junkō parade!

8. Be sure not to miss the festival's highlight - the Yamaboko-junkō parade!

With 23 floats during the Saki-matsuri on July 17, and 10 floats during the Ato-matsuri on July 24, the Yamaboko floats parading the streets of Kyoto are a real sight to behold! The Kyoto Gion Matsuri Float Ceremony is a designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. In particular, turnings at the “Tsuiji-mawashi” points during the procession, where the floats change direction, are met with much applause and cheers from onlookers.

During the Yamaboko-junkō parade, Koike-dōri Street is converted into fee-paying, designated seating for the parade. Between the Saki-matsuri and the Ato-matsuri, there are a total of 33 Yamaboko floats to be seen, and you can observe the procession in beautifully decorated stands with fee-paying seats.

The fee-paying seats during the Ato-matsuri allow you to see not just the Yamaboko-junkō parade, but the inspection of the floats, called the Kuji Aratame, from up close too. Tickets are sold in convenience stores nationwide, as well as travel agents, and on the internet (https://kyoto.travel/en/).

How are the crowds at Gion Matsuri and how to dress?

StreetVJ / Shutterstock.com
StreetVJ / Shutterstock.com

Expect crowds of 400-500,000 on the streets during the Yoiyama, along with high temperatures. As it can get quite crowded as well, it’s recommended to dress light and wear comfortable shoes. On top of that, the summers in Kyoto are sweltering as well, so don’t forget to bring a bottle of water with you.

The beautifully magnificent Gion Matsuri has its roots stretching all the way back to the Heian period. With people from all throughout Japan visiting for the Yoi-yama and Yamaboko-junkō parade, the main draw of this festival is in the refreshing and colorful spiritual ceremonies and rituals held for the gods, so be sure to experience this for yourself!

Text by: Efeel

*This article was originally published in May 2020 and updated in April 2022.

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