All The Street Is A Stage At Kyōto's Massive Gion Festival
EVENT

All The Street Is A Stage At Kyōto's Massive Gion Festival

Kyoto 2016.07.18

The annual Gion Festival in Kyōto is celebrated as one of Japan's three great festivals. Witness gigantic floats as they parade around the city streets.

Translated byLester Somera

Just a Kansai guy trying to get by

Written by Keishi Kawakami

What comes to mind when you hear the word “festival”?

There is an abundance of festivals all over the world, each with its own particular features: The Rio Carnival in Brazil, Spain’s Buñol Tomato Festival, and the New Mexico Balloon Festival in America, among others.

Here in Kyōto, though, there is a wonderful festival that holds its own against any other event.

A History that Spans More than a Millennium

Reference: Kyōto Free Photographic Materials Collection

Every year in Kyōto, the streets become a stage at the massive Gion Festival in Kyōto. The Gion Festival is more than a thousand years old, and is particularly evocative of Kyōto’s summer traditions.

The Gion Festival began 1100 years ago, intended as a measure to suppress a prevalent disease epidemic. Pressure from influential people and various conflicts had the effect of supspending the festival many times. but it was always revived, and it has existed together with the city of Kyōto up to the present day. Through the dreams and efforts of the people who worked to revive the festival in the past, the festival is now etched into history.

The Gion Festival lasts a month, from July 1st until the 31st. The festival grounds in Kyōto stretch from Karasuma to Kawaramachi, and it is an extremely large scale event. The festival will be busiest from July 14 to 16, during the early parade known as Yoiyama, and on July 17, when the yamahoko (or yamaboko) floats parade around town.

At this time, visitors stroll around and eat from the various yatai food stalls, and the yamahoko floats are lit up. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the best time to see the Gion Festival; if you can, aim to visit Kyōto during these four days.

Get Up Close and Personal with the Centerpieces of the Gion Festival: The Yamahoko Floats

The highlight of the Gion Festival has to be the yamahoko floats.

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Reference: Kyōto Free Photographic Materials Collection

A yamahoko float can be up to about eight meters tall from its bottom to its roof, and up to roughly 25 meters tall from its bottom to its highest point. Amazingly, one float weighs more than ten tons!

Including the ondō-tori, who directs the float’s movements, each yamahoko is pulled by about 40 to 50 people. The huge scale of the floats have real impact, and you will feel the float crews’ shouts in your bones. There are actually 33 yamahoko floats that will appear in Kyōto’s streets, and each one has its own name and historical background.

Check this link to view the route the floats will take on July 17th.

Kyōto City Tourism Association

This year the procession of yamahoko floats will be split into two, with a “former” and “latter” parade, which has not happened for 49 years. Furthermore, this year, we will see the return of the giant Ōfunehoko float for the first time in 150 years. Up to 200 years ago, the majority of this float was destroyed by fire, and it has not been seen in the streets of Kyōto since then. This comeback should be commemorated, and it would be well worth your time to witness this historic sight.

By the way, you can watch the passing floats pass from paid seating, but you can also see them just by walking around, so don’t worry about missing them.

Three Things to Pay Attention to at the Gion Festival

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We will mention three things you should be aware of in order to fully enjoy this festival. They’re very important, so keep them in mind.

  • Point One: Bathrooms

Despite the scale of the Gion Festival, there will not be many portable toilets set up in the area. While there are public toilets, they are difficult to find, and most of all, very few people will be able to explain how to get to them in English. Crowds at station and convenience store restrooms are unavoidable, but you are better off taking care of business there.

  • Point Two: Rain

During the three-day Yoiyama parade, you can almost certainly expect rain. You can buy cheap foldable umbrellas and raincoats at stores, so be prepared.

  • Point Three: Cash

Prices at food and souvenir stalls will generally run from 200 to 1000 yen, so exchange your large bills for smaller currency. Carrying a lot of coins will be convenient.

In Closing

There are plenty of wonderful festivals all over the world, their histories filled with the dreams and stories of festivalgoers, and the Gion Festival is no different. Surrender yourself to the historical scenes of Kyōto, alive with long-kept traditions, and enjoy the best days of summer.

Information

Kyōto Kawaramachi

Address: Kyōto, Chūkei-ku, Shijō-dōri
Hours: Varies by stall, most will close by 23:00
Wi-Fi: Yes (Kyoto Wi-Fi)
Credit cards: Not at stalls
Foreign language support: Varies by stall
Closest station: Karasuma or Kawaramachi Station (Hankyū), Gion-Shijo Station (Keihan)
Access: Just outside any exit at street-level
Homepage: https://www.kyokanko.or.jp/gion/index.html

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