Gion Matsuri — Kyoto’s summer festival

30 Jul

Gion is one of my most favourite places in Kyoto. It retains much of its pre-war charm, with cobblestone streets, paper lanterns and wooden storefronts, all a facade for the mysterious world of the geiko, Japan’s most famous geisha. In a city so rich in history, it’s no wonder that one of its most beloved festivals is more than 1200 years old.

Gion Matsuri (festival) is held always on the same days in July, with different events happening each week, with the highlight being the grand parade being held on July 17th. More information on the schedule can be found on the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

As this past July 15th was a national holiday, a group of friends and I went to Kyoto to, mostly, stuff our faces and wear fancy clothes. For one month a year, people are shuffling down almost every street in downtown Kyoto, wrapped in yukata under the strong July sun, and taking in the festivities. Yukata and kimono can be rented and purchased in Kyoto, but come at a wide range of prices. As yukata are light summer kimono and much less elaborate, they can generally be had for under 10,000 yen ($100).

A friend and I completely lucked out when we found a shop selling cheap yukata, just north of Kawaramachi station on Shijo dori. I chose a blue, flower print yukata with what a salesperson said was a “sexy” obi (sash) for 3800 yen ($38). And she then wrapped me up in it like a present, something which I am doubtful I can replicate.

My first yukata.

My first yukata.

We then met up with friends and made our way to Yasaka shrine, one of the most well known in Kyoto, for festival songs, dances and food stalls. My tightly wound yukata seemed to loosen a bit after a skewer of garlic and pepper Kobe beef and a mango snow cone with sweetened condensed milk. We then spent the afternoon relaxing and taking photos in the adjacent Maruyama Park, which I also visited during hanami season.

Grilled meat on a stick -- essential Japanese festival food.

Grilled meat on a stick — essential Japanese festival food.

After all that time sweating in pretty fabrics, it was time for more food. During the evenings of Gion Matsuri, the streets near the intersection of Karasuma and Shijo become clogged with people visiting street stalls and viewing the floats that will pulled during the grand parade. The floats are quite magical — these large constructions that look like shrines with many moving parts and ringing bells.

It would have been great to see the grand parade, but it’s held this year on a night that I work. Maybe I’ll still be around next year for it!

Gion Matsuri ends tomorrow, July 31st. Visit the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide website for more information.

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