Sightseeing in Kyoto is enjoyable all throughout the seasons. The festivals and events held during the different seasons evoke memories of the time when Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and they are most definitely worth visiting. Here you will find a selection of festivals and events that you should not miss!
This is one of the three major Kyoto festivals, and it started 1400 years ago with the purpose of praying for an abundant harvest. Its official name is the Kamo Festival. The sight of a total of 500 people dressed in noble clothing from the Heian period going from the Kyoto Imperial Palace and through the Shimogamo Shrine towards the Kamigamo Shrine along with oxcarts is just overwhelming. By the way, the weight of the ceremonial robe worn by Saio-dai, the heroine of the Aoi Festival, is a whopping 30 kg! (This type of dress was worn by noblewomen from the 10th century on).
Watching from the roadside is free, but the most popular spots become overly crowded. There are tickets for seats available for purchase too, which we recommend if you want to take your time to watch and take photographs. Street stalls are usually the first thing that comes to mind when talking about festivals in Japan, but there are no street stalls in the Aoi Festival. It is rather a good opportunity to appreciate the new greenery and a historical event. We definitely recommend going out to enjoy this festival!
1. Aoi Festival (May 15th / Postponed to the following day in the case of rain)
The Gion Festival started to be celebrated about 1100 years ago with the purpose of driving plagues away, and it has become a symbol of the beginning of the summer in Kyoto. It is also one of the three major festivals of the city. There are many things to see during the month of July, from the 1st to the 31st. The most lively event is Yoiyama, the small festival held on the night before the festival which reaches its peak as the Gion Bayashi (Gion Festival music) starts to sound and the area becomes full of visitors who come to see the small festival. Dozens of lanterns in special shapes and designs are lit up, and the sight of the lights floating in the darkness is a definitive must-see. Kyoto is very hot and humid at this time of the year, and the area becomes very crowded, so make sure to stay hydrated. The "Gion Festival" is a local festival where street stalls are set up by the roadside at night, and you may find unexpected treasures in some of them. How about dressing up in a yukata (summer kimono) to enjoy this festival?
2. Gion Festival (July)
This festival, along with the Gion festival, is a typical summer event in Kyoto. Ceremonial bonfires are set alight in order to send the spirits of deceased ancestors who visit their homes during Obon (the Festival of the Death) back to the other world. This festival is especially famous for the Daimonji (a giant bonfire in the shape of the character "dai," meaning "large") on Mt. Nyoigadake in Higashiyama, but there are others, the bonfires made in a boat shape called the Funagata on Mt. Funayama in Nishigamo and the bonfires in the shape of a shrine's torii gate called the Toriigata on Mt. Mandara in Sagatoriimoto. There are places in downtown Kyoto from which you can see the five bonfires at the same time, but all of them are rather small and in most cases raffles are held for the rights to purchase entrance tickets. Sightseeing bus lines offer tours around the okuribi bonfires, so we recommend going on one. Prayer spots for each okuribi are detailed on the official homepage, so you can decide which okuribi to visit and go see it from a closer spot. You will undoubtedly be impressed.
3. Gozan no Okuribi (August)
The Jidai Matsuri ("Festival of the Ages") is one of the three major Kyoto festivals, known for its gorgeous processions which recreate the 1100 years during which Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan. Thanks to their extensive historical research, the festival uses a total of 12,000 items, including costumes and equipment created following the tradition and craftsmanship of Kyoto. 8 periods going from 794 to 1870 are divided in 20 processions in which a total of 2,000 people participate. The processions start at 12:00 pm and it takes about 2 hours for all of them to pass. It is a good idea to eat before going to the festival or to bring a light snack with you.
The way in which everything changes with each period could be said to be a concentrated representation of Japanese history, and the festival bustles with large numbers of tourists both from Japan and from overseas. About 70 horses and cows, the transportation methods of the time, pass by as well. Visitors are allowed to take pictures, but make sure not to use flash, since it is forbidden in order to not disturb the animals.
4. Jidai Matsuri (October)
The temples and shrines of Kyoto are bustling with visitors during daytime, but they offer a very different atmosphere when they are lit up at night. Some of the temples, like Kiyomizudera, use different entrances during the day and night, so be sure to check in advance. We recommend visiting the main hall during the day, and then enjoying the lit up garden at night. A visit to a lit up temple or shrine at night will surely leave a deep impression in your heart. In spring, the cherry blossoms look breathtakingly beautiful at night, and in the fall you will be able to appreciate the beauty of the foliage. The special visiting periods are established in advance, so it is a good idea to check their homepages before you visit. Enjoy the beauty of temples and shrines as they change throughout the seasons.
5. Special nighttime viewings at temples and shrines
Kyoto is an amazing town even if you are just sightseeing. These events are held only for a limited period of time, so if you happen to be around when they are being held, be sure to go out to see them. This will surely turn your trip into a deeper experience where you will become able to feel the charm of Kyoto as the old capital of Japan.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.