The Gion Matsuri is a famous festival that is said to mark the beginning of summer in Japan. Held in Kyoto, the country’s ancient capital since 869 AD, the Gion Matsuri is steeped in ritual and tradition and offers a glimpse of old Japan.
Kicking off on July 1 at Yasaka Shrine in the Gion district of Kyoto, a series of Shinto rituals and events take place at the shrine and continue throughout the city until the end of July.
It’s an exciting time to be in Kyoto as the city gears up for the festivities and the famous Yamaboko Junkō (parade). On July 17 the streets line with people to watch the procession of small (yama) and large (hoko) colorful, old floats go by, adorned with gorgeous tapestries and fabrics and pulled by teams of men wearing traditional costumes.
So important is the parade that Kyoto’s entire downtown area is cut off from traffic for three days. Food stalls are set up here and sell delicious Japanese snacks such as yakitori (BBQ skewers), okonomiyaki (pancakes) and taiyaki (baked sea bream), and you’ll get the chance to see delicate paper lanterns and many girls wearing yukata (summer kimonos).
The festival also presents an opportunity to visit some of Kyoto’s traditional houses with open doors that lead up to the parade. Many of these private residences exhibit family heirlooms including old kimonos, tapestries and exquisite folding screens.