Kyoto's Gion Festival

For over a thousand years, this festival in Japan's cultural center has been the place to be

By: Arin Greenwood

KYOTO, Japan Welcome to Kyoto during the Gion Festival, where thousands of young women in kimonos walk around with their geisha-style wooden shoes and body-pierced boyfriends. Where ornate floats decorated with trees and priceless tapestries parade by the city’s Starbucks. Where you can watch ancient ritual dances in front of bright pink chocolate-covered-banana-on-a-stick snack stands. Kyoto’s big party presents a fascinating mix of the old and new.

The festival called Gion Matsuri in Japanese is said to have begun in 869, when a disease-riddled Japan tried to appease the angry gods with prayers and by building 66 spears, one for each of Japan’s provinces. Kyoto was soon plague-free, and this ritual was resurrected whenever the gods afflicted Kyoto with disease. In 970, the Gion Festival became an annual event, interrupted by war for 10 years in the Middle Ages.

Today, just like almost 1,100 years ago, the Gion Festival is centered at the Yasaka Shrine, a very beautiful Shinto shrine and home to the helpful god of medicine in the eastern part of Kyoto.

Throughout July, events related to the festival take place all over Kyoto, but the really exciting festivities happen over three days toward the end of the festival. This is when 500,000 people come into Kyoto to party like it’s 869 (without the nasty plague) and to see the parade of incredibly ornate floats 32 in all, carrying musicians and pulled by teams of people dressed in traditional costumes.

On July 15, the festival kicks into high gear when the floats are brought out into the streets. From then until the parade, which takes place on July 17, the city comes alive with everything from traditional performances to riverside drinking to geisha-spotting and more. Also, Kyoto’s homes are opened up during festival time so visitors may admire traditional artwork.

But if the Gion Festival is the busiest and wildest time to visit Kyoto, it is by no means the only time of year you’re going to run into the confluence of the traditional with the modern. Kyoto which was Japan’s capital for nearly 1,100 years, from 784 until 1868 is still considered to be Japan’s cultural center. Home not only to a top-notch university, countless high-rises and an estimable subway system, Kyoto is also the last Japanese city to have traditional wooden architecture (the rest of the wooden buildings in Japan’s urban areas were destroyed in World War II). Kyoto is also the place to experience Japanese traditions, like kabuki theater, tea ceremonies and ryoken (traditional Japanese guesthouses). Kyoto is one of last places in Japan to have geishas as well.

Kyoto is also superb for sightseeing, hiking and enjoying Japanese culture. Among Kyoto’s many hundreds of temples and shrines are Nanzen-ji Temple, the headquarters of the Rinzai school of zen, where monks pray under a waterfall, and around which are some very lovely hiking trails. The Golden Pavilion called Kinkaku-ji (or more formally Rokuon-ji) in Japanese is an astonishing gold-leaf covered temple set by the edge of a lake. The original temple, built in 1393, burned down in 1950 and rebuilt in 1955. The 1955 rendering of the temple is actually more closely in tune with the designer’s original intention; it is fully covered in gold leaf, while the 1393 version of the temple had only its third-floor ceiling covered.

Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines, three castles, and roughly one-quarter of all Japan’s national treasures. If you’re starting to think that Kyoto’s offerings are incredibly vast, you’re right. For a first visit to Kyoto, it might be best to recommend a wonderful service provided by the Japan National Tourist Organization clients arrange for free English-speaking guides to take them around Kyoto (or any other Japanese city). All they have to do is cover the guide’s admissions, food and transportation costs for the duration of the tour, and they’ll help clients sort temples from tea ceremonies.

Japan National Tourist Organization: