10 October 2012

A guide to Kyoto’s festival scene

Kyoto is a city bursting with culture, and what better way to celebrate this than with a good old festival? The locals’ infectious enthusiasm for exciting and vibrant celebrations is becoming recognised around the world, so we’ve decided to take a closer look for a little inspiration…


Jidai Matsuri meaning ‘Festival of Ages’ caters for exactly that – everyone, of all ages. It’s the anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto. It also gives us a glimpse of Kyoto’s history. The grand parade is held to showcase the history and customs during the 1,000 years Kyoto was the Capital of Japan. With the parade divided up into eras, almost 2,000 costume performers take to the streets as historical figures, cultural characters, aristocrats, samurai and common people with ox and horse carts to help them along the way. It’s a history lesson in itself, but you feel part of it.


5km of Kyoto is lit up – quite literally. This 10 day event sees over 2 million people descend to Kyoto’s district of Higashiyama to walk the 5km strip. It’s unmissable with thousands of bamboo and ceramic lanterns brightening the way to the foothill of Higashiyama Mountain. About 2500 lanterns are used to light the way in this ever romantic setting. All well-known temples and shrines are illuminated and stay open late. You could even sneak a special dance performance at the Yasaka Shrine from a local Geisha. Also, watch out for the 1,000 Touro lights made out of bamboo that float down the Yoshimizu stream.


Every year on the 15th May, 500 people are decked out in aristocratic style of the Heian Period. As spectators line the streets, the precession makes their way from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines. It’s just oozing with tradition as the story originates back to the mid-6th century, when the emperor pleaded with the gods to help the grain grow. Since then, AOI has been celebrated in their honour. Carriages decorated with geranium and pulled by ox’s lead the herd it could be said, in a true people celebration.


20 intricately and lavishly designed boats skim the waters of the Oigawa River in the serene district of Arashiyama. It originates back over 1000 years, to when the Emperor would visit – it was his welcoming party. Now times have moved on the tradition continues, and with 100,000 visitors who come to view the graceful spectacle. You can watch the ‘sailors’ embark on the boats, dressed head to toe in traditional garments. Every boat plays a different role to the guest. One boat will carry dancers, while one will have musicians, another with poets. It’s an exciting atmosphere, and watching them leisurely stroll down the river in the dragon-headed-boat is surreal.


Gion Matsuri, the festival of Yasaka Shrine is the biggest festival in Japan. It’s a month long affair, running throughout July. There are many events happening during Gion Matsuri, but some are classed as unmissable and one of the biggest is Yamaboko Junko – a procession of floats on July 17th; and Yoiyama, the festive evenings preceding the procession. The float parade showcases roughly 30 floats all spectacularly adorned with hundreds of lights, woven fabrics and dyed materials. They can be two-stories and 6 metres tall. And they are stunning to watch as the cascade down the main streets of Kyoto. Music can be heard throughout all the streets. You can visit the floats and collect a souvenir, an Omamori, which is a good luck charm made from sasa bamboo grass for warding off evils. This festival is the equivalent to our Notting Hill Carnival.

Words by Prudence Patterson