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5 things to know about Kyoto’s Gion festival

Japan’s biggest festival, Gion Matsuri, takes place in Kyoto from 10 July. Here’s everything you need to know about it

A float in Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

1. Gion Matsuri began in 869

Musicians on top of a float, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Musicians on top of a float, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Gion Matsuri takes place throughout July, but the events of most interest to visitors begin on 10 July. The festival began as a religious ceremony during an epidemic in 869, when it was believed it would appease the gods.

2. You can watch floats being made

Lanterns on a float, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Lanterns on a float, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Between 10 and 14 July you can watch the festival floats – known as yama and hoko – being assembled without nails around central Kyoto. Once the floats are ready, they are displayed around the junction of Karasuma and Shijo Streets, and you may have chance to explore inside some of the larger ones. Both types feature tassels, paintings and sculptures and are draped in nishijin, woven fabric often depicting Japanese fans or cherry blossom that was traditionally produced in Kyoto for kimonos.

3. You can buy lucky charms and octopus balls

Locals in yukata queuing for festival food in Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Locals in yukata queuing for festival food in Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

A boy is also chosen by a local affluent family to be the chigo, or divine messenger; he prays for success at Yasaka Shrine then sits atop a float between 13 and 17 July. He’s so sacred, that during this time he’s not allowed to stand on the ground until after he’s been paraded through the city on the float on 17 July – the main event.

The roads close to traffic in the evenings between 14 and 16 July to make space for stalls selling drinks and street food such as noodles, takoyaki (octopus balls), shaved ice and mochi (pounded rice). You can also buy lucky charms known as chimaki. Most of the action takes places on Shijo street. On 16 July, which is known as Yoiyama, dancers perform on a stage in the grounds of Yasaka Shrine and locals exhibit family heirlooms such as folding screens, kimonos and calligraphy on the street to passersby.

4. The main procession is 3km long

Men pulling a float in Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Men pulling a float in Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

The main event starts at 9am on 17 July. Yamaboko Junko derives its name from the Japanese words for the two types of floats used: 23 yama floats and 10 larger hoko floats, some of which weigh 12 tons and are 25m tall. Set on wheels and attached to a rope, they are pulled along the 3km parade route on Shijo and Kawaramachi streets by teams of local men while others carry floats on beams on their shoulders.

As well as the floats, visitors will see people carrying lanterns. You can also watch dancers, see geisha and apprentice geisha and listen to musicians playing drums and wooden flutes. Many local women wear yukata (cotton kimono) and carry fans because mid-July sees temperatures rise to 32°C.

5. There’s a second, smaller procession

Apprentice geisha in Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

Apprentice geisha in Kyoto, Japan (Shutterstock)

The three nights before the second parade – 21, 22 and 23 July – also turn Shijo Street into a festival, with street food and dancing. You can also get up close to the floats during this time.

Ato Matsuri starts at 9am on 24 July. This procession is a smaller, less crowded affair than Yamaboko Junko – 10 yama and hoko are used. The parade begins in the morning at Karasuma and runs along Oike Street near Kyoto City Hall, the location of grandstand seating. Pre-book seats there for the best views, although you can also bag a spot on a rooftop or stand anywhere along the route – the best places are street corners, so you can watch the ritual of the floats being turned.

While Gion Matsuri is still being celebrated in 2021, both parades have been cancelled due to Covid-19.

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