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Kyoto Festival: The Top 3 Festivals

Kyoto Festival

Kyoto Festival: The Top 3 Festivals

Kyoto is known for the hundreds of temples and shrines, beautiful Japanese nature, and the traditional old school Japanese style of architecture. However, visitors also love to come to Kyoto for their annual festivals as well! So in this article, I’ll go over each top Kyoto Festival held every year! These three Kyoto Festivals are sometimes called “the 3 Big Kyoto Festivals” and is known worldwide.

If you want other ideas of what to do in Kyoto, be sure to check out our other article of 7 Things to Do in Kyoto!

Below, I will go over each top Kyoto festival, along with details, hours, prices, and history.

Gion Matsuri

First off, we have the Gion Matsuri festival, which is the largest Kyoto festival of the year.  It takes place all throughout the month of July with a series of events, celebrating the Yasaka Shrine.

Most of the events are relatively small and appeal more to the locals. However there are still some events throughout July that will be more entertaining for tourists and visitors!

Below I will talk about the history of Gion Matsuri and how this parade came to be in existence. Then I’ll let you know of the Gion Matsuri events we suggest you experience if your visiting Kyoto!

Gion Matsuri History

The Gion Matsuri festival has been widely celebrated in Kyoto ever since the year 869. Originally people celebrated this religious festival for the purpose of appeasing the gods to help with epidemic outbreaks, floods, fires, and earthquakes.

As Shinto believers, the Emperor Seiwa ordered the people to pray for the outbreaks and catastrophes that were occurring. In addition to praying, they also decided to build parade floats that carried mikoshi.

Every time an outbreak occurred, the locals would repeat this festival. It was until the year 970 when they decided to make the Gion Matsuri festival official and celebrate it annually for the whole month of July.

And so overtime, the festival transformed to be more elaborate.

Today they carry on the tradition of selecting a local boy to be a divine messenger to the gods. The boy is not supposed to put his feet on the ground until he has paraded through the town from July 13th to 17th.

Kyoto Festival Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri Events You Should See

As said earlier, there are many small events for Gion Matsuri that will appeal mostly to the locals. However, listed below are the events that will be of most interest to tourists and visitors.

Below you’ll see that there are two float processions that will be a very unique event to experience! We recommend seeing the float procession days the most.

(By the way, float processions are floats that parade down the streets in an orderly fashion).

July 14 – 16: Street Party

Time: Dusk – 10pm

Location: Shijo-dori (Shijo street)

July 17: Main Float Procession of the Month (called Sama Matsuri Junko)

Time: 9am – 11:30am

Location: Downtown Streets

July 21 – 23: Street Party

Time: Dusk – 10pm

Location: Shijo-dori (Shijo street)

July 24: Second Float Procession (called Ato Matsuri Junko)

Time: 9:30am – 11:30am

Location: Downtown Streets

During the street parties that lead up to float processions, you can expect to find lots of food stalls and Japanese women dressed up in light yukata robes. Be sure to have fun, try some local food and drinks, and take lots of pictures!

Kyoto Festival Gion Matsuri at Night

Aoi Matsuri

Aoi Matsuri, another great Kyoto Festival, also called Hollyhock Festival, takes place every year on May 15.

This Kyoto Festival involves over 500 people dressed up from the Heian Period (794-1185), parading down from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines.

Below, I’ll talk about the history of this Kyoto festival and why it’s celebrated.  And I’ll give you more details on how to see it for yourself!

Aoi Matsuri History

Back in the 7th century, there were natural disasters occurring thought to have been caused by deities/gods of the Kamo Shrines.

These natural disasters caused great damage to crops and annual harvests. So to stop the disasters from occurring, the Emperor prayed to the gods and gave offerings.

The disasters shortly after stopped occurring. And so now, the practice of giving offerings and parading down to Kamo Shrines became an annual tradition.

Part of the tradition is to wear hollyhock leaves, which is aoi in Japanese. These leaves were thought to protect against natural disasters, which is why they became a tradition for people in the float procession to wear them as decoration.

Aoi Matsuri Events

The main event of this Kyoto Festival is the procession of over 500 participants dressed up form the Heian Period. They start at the Imperial Palace and make their way over to the Kamo Shrines with several stops on the way.

The procession is led by a messenger who rides on a horse with a gold sword in hand. Following him is also another main figure of the parade, Saio-Dai.

The Saio-Dai is played by an unmarried women from Kyoto, chosen by the sisters and daughters of the Emperor to dedicate herself to the Shimogamo Shrine.

Shimogamo Shrine is the first shrine that the parade will stop at. Because there are a couple stops along the way, I’ll make the route a little more clear below.

Start off at Imperial Palace (10:30am)

As said before, the parade will start off at Imperial Palace, which is easily accessible by public transportation. The best way is to arrive by train from Kyoto Station.

First Stop: Shimogamo Shrine (11:40am)

Once the parade departs from the Imperial Palace, they head north to stop at Shimogamo Shrine.  A ceremony is performed for about 2 hours here, before continuing on.

If you want to see this shrine, be sure to arrive early to make sure you can see the ceremony on time. The best way to get to this shrine is to take a bus from Kyoto Station. Be sure to take an early ride over!

Last Stop: Kamigamo Shrine (3:30pm)

The procession will stop at Kamigamo Shrine, which is also best accessed by bus.

There is paid seating available for the Imperial Palace and both Kamo Shrines (Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine). It costs 2700 yen to get seats for the Imperial Palace and Shimogamo Shrine. English audio guides are available only at the Imperial Palace, which will cost 3700.

The paid seating for Kamigamo Shrine costs about 1000 yen, which you can purchase on the day of the festival starting at noon.

Convenience stores will sell these festival tickets as well.

Kyoto Festival Aoi Matsuri

Jidai Matsuri

The last top Kyoto Festival is Jidai Matsuri, which is held every year on October 22. The name Jidai Matsuri means “Festival of the Ages” and celebrates all the major Japanese historical periods from the 8th century to the 19th century.

Participants come dressed up from each major historical Japanese period, including some who are dressed as famous historical figures. The historical periods cover the 1100 years in which Kyoto was the national capital.

There are about 2000 total participants that parade from the Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine. And it takes about 2 whole hours to watch the entire parade pass by.

The first float that you’ll see in the period is the newest time period. Then afterwards, it’ll be the time period before that and so on with the oldest time period last. It is fun to see the difference in traditional Kyoto costumes from all the different time periods.

If you want to take it easy and sit back, there is paid seating available for three locations along the parade route. You can choose to buy tickets to sit at the Imperial Palace location, Oike Street (which is midway through the route), or Heian Shrine. It’ll cost 2050 yen to sit at these locations. You can buy these tickets from the local convenience stores.

Time: 12pm – 2:30pm

Kyoto Festival Jidai Matsuri

Other Kyoto Festivals Throughout the Year

If you are going to Kyoto, but are not going to be able to see the 3 major Kyoto festivals, then I want to be sure you can see others that may interest you while you are there. There are many other festivals that are held every year that hopefully you can have the chance to experience!

January

January 1 – 3: Hatsumodae 

Visitors come to local shrines or major shrines in Kyoto to start off the new year by praying for good luck and success.

January 8-12: Toka Ebisu

A ritual praying to Ebisu, the god of prosperity. The ritual involves throwing cash into a donation box in front of the main hall of Ebisu Shrine and then ringing a bell.

February

February 2-3: Setsubun

Setsubun marks the beginning of Spring, according to the old calendar. So what people do is throw roasted soybeans out of their front door and yell “Devils out, good luck in!” to start the season off by letting new, good things in. Various shrines around Kyoto will celebrate Setsubun including Yasaka Shrine and Heian Shrine.

March

March 3-12: Higashiyama Hanatoro

Held in southern Higashiyama, lanterns light up along the roads covering Maruyama-koen Park. You’ll also be able to see lots of light sculptures and illustrations.

April

April 1-7: Kitano Odori Geisha Dance

Annual Geisha dances performances are held around Kyoto.

May

May 3: Yabusame Shinji

Yabusame Shinji is a horseback archery event that is held at Shimogamo Shrine and is very exciting to see! You’ll be able to get close to the horses and riders.

August

August 16: Daimonji Fire Festival

During this event, large Chinese characters are light up on the hills of Kyoto. The main hill to view these is Daimonji.

September

Mid September: Autumn Full Moon Viewing

The autumn nights in Kyoto tend to be very clear. So on the night of the full moon, people go to shrines to attend events for the full moon.

November

November 1-10: Gion Odori

The Gion District holds an annual major Geisha dance.

December

Mid December: Arashiyama Hanatoro 

Thousands of lanterns are lit up around Arashiyama lanes and Bamboo Groves, creating a magical site to see!

December 31: Hatsumode

To celebrate the new year, many people go to shrines to wish for good luck.


I hope you enjoyed learning about the major Kyoto Festivals held every year! Kyoto is also very famous for its hundreds of temples. I’ve helped narrow down that list for you to the 15 Best Temples in Kyoto. Be sure to check them out to see which ones you want to go to most!

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