The Gion Matsuri festival is the biggest annual celebration in Kyoto, which takes place for a couple of days. I have to admit I had no idea what was happening when I found myself there. We accidentally booked our weekend in Kyoto exactly in the days of the Gion Matsuri Festival! It was nice since it is a big celebration, but the number of people walking around was overwhelming.
Historically the celebration was meant as a moment of prayer to celebrate the liberation from the plague, it then developed into the festival that still takes place today. During the days (mainly the 17th and 24th of July), people walk around in colorful yukatas (summer kimonos) making the scene as pictoresque as ever for tourists.
The issue is that if you plan on visiting the city in these days you must book your stay with months in advance. It wasn’t an issue in my case, since we planned everything much in advance to find cheaper solutions (but of course staying in Kyoto in those days was still very expensive!). We managed to sleep in a ryokan, which is a traditional japanese hotel accomodation where you sleep on futons on tatami mats. I have to admit that as much as I like the idea it’s really hard to remember to take your shoes off each and every time you walk in the room. Inside a ryokan you will also find baths (the public kind, where you must be totally naked and have no tattoos) and serve a japanese breakfast (kaiseki meals, are made of a set of small dishes).
Back to the Gion Matsuri festival. We were staying in central Kyoto, quite close to the Nishiki Market, that is an historic location to visit whilst in Kyoto. The Gion Matsuri Festival is built around the main float processions that takes place around the city, and it also went through Shijo Dori (close to where we were) making the street total chaos.
The main float events take place on the 17th of July and on the 24th of July, the former is called Sama Matsuri Junko and the latter Ato Matsuri Yamaboko Junko (a new procession which has been added a few years ago, smaller in size it might be easier to watch since less people attend it). The floats are 32, and are called yamaboko. The 9 largest floats are the yama, and the 23 remaining smaller are the hoko. The floats are all carried by men, and filled with musicians and decorative textiles (I loved the fact that they have perfectly crafted transparent plastic covers for the floats in case of rain. It’s fun to see the preparation of the floats in the days that preceed the procession, especially on Shijo dori. The procession takes place from 9 am to 11:30 am, and all around town you can hear the “chant”. As the hotel manager recommended the best place to see the procession is in the corners of the route, since making the giant floats change direction is very complex and challenging.
Something that we also discovered by chance was the fact that during the days of the festival the festivities take place till night time (don’t get excited, just till 10 pm), in what is known as Yoi-Yama events. The streets are all closed to traffic and filled with people selling street food in front of restaurants or on temporary baracks. The events take place in the three days that preceed the procession, that is why they are called yoi-yoi-yoi yama, yoi-yoi-yama and yoi-yama. So it’s a great fun to walk around and eat whatever catches your eye, as street food is always the best of the best.