Kyoto Gion Matsuri | Japanese Festivals

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The Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is one of the three most famous Japanese festivals with over 1000 years of history. I’m crazy about this festival which is cool, high-spirited and elegant at the same time. The festival continues the whole month of July according to a traditionally fixed schedule and various kinds of ceremonies.

Gion Festival Highlights

The first highlight is ‘hoko tate’ (float assembling) which starts on July 10th. It goes on for a couple of days in every corner of Kyoto’s downtown area, and it is definitely worth seeing! The framework of the float is assembled skillfully by only straw ropes. I really love to watch and see how experienced artisans work on it. What especially impresses me is the beautifully arranged knots of ropes.

Although the framework will be covered later with tapestries, artisans won’t cut corners. Creating and arranging the knots of ropes beautifully is what they are proud of. Even though invisible, the covered parts are given as much attention as the visible parts… That’s the spirit of Japanese culture. As the float assembling goes on, the streets boast a festive mood with a lot of vendors selling typical festival foods and drinks. And festival music played all around with drums, bamboo flutes, and bells adds to the festive atmosphere.

Gion Festival Day

On the festival day itself, the main thing I try to avoid is the huge crowds. Especially on the 17th, the day of float procession called Yamaboko Junko. People start to gather around the main streets to secure the best spot to see the procession from around 7 am, 2 hours ahead of the starting time. Around the main intersection where the spectacle of the huge float turning can be seen is by far the most crowded place.

Once you get in the crowd it’s almost impossible to move around for a while. This is why I always secure my position at a corner of less crowded streets, the corner of Shinmachi street and Shijo street are good areas. There are no obstacles that block your view and you will still feel the lively spirit of the participants wearing a happi, the traditional uniform for festivals.

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