Visiting the Gion Festival
Visiting the Gion Festival
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 – visiting the Gion Festival is a major undertaking. It’s an extraordinary celebration.
It’s also midsummer in the subtropics. This means it’s hot as blazes, very humid, and prone to pouring rain, even typhoons. Add a very foreign language and a million visitors in an area less than a mile square. Now you know what you’re in for.
How to enjoy your visit
Relax, surrender to the heat and crowds, and keep your senses open. The exotic, baroque cacophony of the Gion Festival is an unparalleled sensory experience, appropriately supernatural. The absurd juxtaposition of sublime artistic detail with modern kitsch is exquisitely funny. The mundane surroundings are chaotic, so let them pass over you.
Where and when to visit the Gion Festival
The Gion Festival neighborhoods display their floats in two parts: the larger saki-matsuri (“early festival” from July 10-17) and smaller-scale ato-matsuri (“later festival” from July 18-24). Click on those pages to see which of the larger floats you can actually get on.
Visit as many of the treasure display areas as you can, as chances are good that you won’t see many museum-quality treasures like these so close up anywhere else on the planet.
On each float‘s webpage I try to share enough about each float and its treasures to make your visit rewarding. Learn more about the individual floats by clicking on the drop-down menu of links at right.
For the smaller floats, entrance is free. A small purchase helps support the communities’ ability to keep sharing this way with people like us.
Some of the larger floats require a small purchase (JPY1500 or less) to enter their treasure display area. These usually allow you to actually get on the float as well. Is it worth it? Yes, at least once.
Visiting the Gion Festival also includes a delightful subfestival called the byōbu matsuri, or “folding screen festival.” Neighborhood families and companies 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 Gion Festival tips:
These will help you to make your festival experience more enjoyable:
- Remember that this festival originated 1100+ years ago because of Kyoto’s challenging mid-summer weather. Go with it.
- Wear sun protection.
- Prepare the lightest rain gear (you will sweat) & compact umbrella.
- There are very few public toilets outside the train station, so plan accordingly. Take tissues.
- Stay hydrated.
- Use the subway and train lines that stop at Shijo Karasuma (or Oike Karasuma). Traffic is congested during GIon Festival, so taxis and buses are suboptimal.
- Drink Kyoto’s delicious green tea for refreshment, caffeine without jitters, and health benefits. Wonderful cold.
- Take several rest breaks throughout the day. And then take more.
- Remember to use the restroom when you can.
- Shoes that slip on and off easily are your best friend.
- Visit the festival at the cooler times of day and go somewhere air-conditioned (like one of Kyoto’s numerous museums, shops and Japanese restaurants/green tea houses) when it’s hottest.
- Use a fan and a handkerchief; they work! There are lots of fun ones for free and on sale around the festival. Buying ones from the yamaboko floats helps support the floats’ economic sustainability.
- Carry petty cash for souvenirs and food stalls.
- Our Gion Festival hosts deeply appreciate thoughtful visitors. Practice The Golden Rule and behave like a guest in a private home.