Many festivals take place in Kyoto during summer. Here are five traditional, historical must-see summer festivals that are unique to the towns in Kyoto.
1. Hydrangea Festival
You may think that Japan during the rainy season is not good for outdoor sightseeing, but you have to know that there are also many scenic spots that come to life here in this season. One of those that become beautiful in the rainy season is the hydrangea flower. Sanzen-in, a temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, is one of the most noted places when it comes to this flower as it has about 3,000 hydrangea plants all over the temple. The Hydrangea Festival is held here for about a month from June to July each year, with 1,000 different types of hydrangea in full bloom within the temple premises. Various kinds of hydrangea bloom one after another, so if you suddenly decide to go there during that one-month period, you will surely get to enjoy the sight of these beautiful flowers. Even among the many famous hydrangea spots in Kyoto, they say that the dignified atmosphere at this temple is the most impressive. Sanzen-in is also home to the rare hydrangea “star hydrangea” that is shaped like a star, so this place is certainly worth seeing. During this period of bloom, Buddhist monks perform the Daihan’nya Tendoku-e, which is a prayer service where they read the up to 600-verse Buddhist scripture "Daihannya-kyo” over a short period of time every day at the golden hall. While it is not a lively festival, you can still enjoy its calm beauty.
Festival schedule for 2016: June 18 (Sat.) - July 14 (Thurs.)
Time: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Admission fee: 700 JPY (general)
2. Gion Festival
Held at Yasaka Shrine, Gion Festival, one of the three biggest festivals in Japan, has a long history that spans 1,100 years. This festival lasts for the whole month of July and in its run, many events are held in various places in Kyoto. Out of all these events, the most famous is the “yamahoko” that has been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. A yamahoko is a large elaborately decorated platform pulled by a lot of people during the festival. As many as 50 people can ride on the yamahoko, where they dance or play musical instruments. The grand yamahoko procession, which is said to be the highlight of the Gion Festival, is comprised of the “Saki Matsuri" (Preceding Festival) that is held on July 17th and the “Ato Matsuri" (Latter Festival) that is held on July 24th. A total of 33 yamahoko floats are presented at the event, and the floats that you will see in the Saki Matsuri are different from those you will see in the Ato Matsuri. There is a set course in which the yamahoko floats will go around the town, so it would be best to look for a place where you will be able to see the yamahoko floats you want to see in advance. Tickets for paid viewing seats can be purchased at such places as the Tourist Information Office. During the “Yoi-yama,” the preceding festival that is held on the eve of the Gion Festival, the paper lanterns that adorn the yamahoko are lit up, making the yamahoko floats even more beautiful. In the two days of July 15th and 16th, a portion of Shijo-dori and Karasuma-dori is turned into a pedestrians’ paradise that is lined with different stalls and visited by plenty of people. Yamahoko floats are also present in the Ato Matsuri, but since this is attended by less people than the Saki Matsuri, then you will be able to leisurely enjoy the event. If you want to feel the emotions enveloped in Japanese festivals, then by all means, attend the Gion Festival.
3. Ine Festival
Ine Festival, which has been held in Ine in the northern portion of Kyoto for about 400 years now, is a festival where people pray for safety at sea and a bountiful catch. It is held for two days, but it is a festival unique to fishing towns as it is made up of the “Reisai" (regular festival) that is held in ordinary years and the “Taisai" (grand festival) that is held in years when fishermen have a good catch. During the grand festival, four big ship floats are used instead of just one float during the regular festival, and the image of an entourage of several "yataibune" (vendor's boat) makes it look like a yamahoko, so this festival is also called the “Gion Festival of the Sea.” Apart from the vendors' boats, there are also kagurabune boats carrying people performing taiko drum music and dance that is offered to the gods in Shinto, as well as saireisen boats holding children doing traditional sword performances where spears/swords are swung in order to ward off evil. The boats leave their designated places, converge in the water, and then head toward Yasaka Shrine (different from the Yasaka Shrine in the Gion Matsuri) while people are dancing and performing, just like a moving stage at sea. If you want to see what’s happening up close, then it would best to ride on the excursion boat. However, it would also be good to stand from a rather far spot on shore and from there, watch the parade of large number of ships at Ise Bay. Ine Matsuri also has events that are held on land, but what you should witness is the event onboard the ships, which is a sight that’s unique to this region.
3. Ine Festival
4. Kyoto Gozan Okuribi
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi is an event held every August 16th that is said to be the summer event that best represents Kyoto. Nobody is sure about its origin, but a bonfire is generally an event that is held to send off the spirits to the next world during the Buddhist Obon Festival (festival of the dead). Gozan Okuribi is a religious rite that holds the same meaning, so it is not to be enjoyed like a party, but observed in silence. In this event, bonfires are lit to form five characters and shapes that will surround the central area of Kyoto: "daijmonji," the character for "large"; "myoho," which means "Buddha's marvelous law"; "funagata," which means "the shape of a boat," "hidari daimonji," which is another daimonji only on the left side; and "toriigata," the shape of a shrine's torii gate. In the direction that resembles a circle being drawn from the east, the bonfires are lit one at a time in intervals of about five minutes and last for about 30 minutes. During this time, the advertisements and billboards in town are turned off, setting the entire town in a dreamy atmosphere. The bonfires can be seen from various places, so you will be able to marvel at the sight from a broad range. However, it would be difficult to see the five bonfires from one spot, so you will have to move if you want to see them all. Mt. Funaoka, a small mountain near Kinkakuji is a spot we recommend for being able to see four of the bonfires, except the toriigata bonfire.
4. Kyoto Gozan Okuribi
5. Ayabe Minatsuki Festival
Ayabe Minatsuki Festival, a summer festival held in Ayabe, a town north of Kyoto that can be reached in about one hour from Kyoto Station by express train, is the newest festival in this series of summer festivals. Be that as it may, however, its origin dates back more than 100 years ago, when lanterns were made to float in the river as a memorial service for the ancestors of the locals in town. During this festival, the Manto-nagashi, where 10,000 paper lanterns are released onto the Yura River, is held and then followed by a fireworks display. The interesting aspect of this festival is that it fuses a solemn event for mourning ancestors and a joyous event. You need to see two main features of this festival – the river that reflects the pale light from several paper lanterns that are floating and the fireworks that beautifully light up the night sky. Another must-see event in this festival is the Ayabe Yosakoi that mixes the “yosakoi” dance that originated at a festival in Kochi and has now spread all around the country, and this town's very own Ayabe-odori dance. Just seeing the people dance rhythmically should be interesting enough for anybody.
*Photo is for illustration purposes
5. Ayabe Minatsuki Festival
Now you know that aside from buildings and architecture, there are many places to see and events to join in Kyoto during summer. We hope you enjoy the festivals in Kyoto!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.