Optimize your festival experience
Two processions, thirty-three floats, antique treasures, fine arts, otherworldly music, an array of spiritual traditions, family heirlooms on display, kimono, people watching, thousands of dedicated volunteers, more than 1100 years of history – the Gion Festival is an extraordinary celebration.
It’s also midsummer in the subtropics: hot as blazes, very humid, and prone to pouring rains, even typhoons. Add a very foreign language and a million visitors in an area less than a mile square and you have the idea.
Relax, surrender to the heat and crowds, and keep your senses open. The exotic, baroque cacophony of the overall festival is an unparalleled sensory experience, appropriately supernatural. The details of the artistry and the absurd juxtaposition of kitsch are absolutely exquisite. The middle ground is mayhem, so let it pass over you.
The festival is divided in two parts: the larger mae-matsuri (“early festival,: from July 10-17) and smaller-scale ato-matsuri (“later festival” from July 18-24).
Be aware that the Gion Festival has a subfestival called the byōbu matsuri, or “folding screen festival.” Families and companies located in the neighborhood display historic works of art and other heirlooms. By voluntarily displaying these during the festival, more people share the festival spirit, generously giving us a taste of the culture that kimono merchants traditionally enjoyed.
Practical tips to make your festival experience more enjoyable:
- Wear sun protection, bring light raingear.
- Shoes that slip on and off easily are your friend.
- Stay hydrated.
- Take rest breaks as needed.
- As visitors it’s optimal to practice The Golden Rule and behave like a guest in a private home. I can’t tell you how much our Japanese hosts appreciate considerate visitors.
- Use a fan and a handkerchief; they work! There are lots of fun ones for free and on sale around the festival.
- Visit the festival at the cooler times of day and go somewhere air-conditioned (like one of Kyoto’s numerous museums, shops and restaurants/cafes) when it’s hottest.