The Gion Festival is one of Kyoto's top three festivals (along with the Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri) as well as one of the top three in the nation (along with Osaka's Tenjin Festival and Tokyo's Kanda Matsuri). It has this designation because of its long history in the former capital along with the fact that it is a fun and popular festival.
The festival's origins come from Yasaka Shrine, where the sacred floats were originally used in a Shinto ritual commissioned by the emperor in 869 in order to rid the country of a plague. At that time there were 66 floats, each representing one of Japan's provinces. The festival was made annual after the plague disappeared.
Today there are 33 floats, so they do not represent the prefectures (of which there are 47). Each float however does have significance and meaning, mostly from ancient legends and religious stories. The floats are placed in designated areas from a float around Takatsuji Street up to Aneya Koji Street. The main floats and most impressive are located on and near Shijo Street. There are foodstalls all around and in the evenings, roads are blocked off and the atmosphere really feels more festive. The floats are also lit up and people play music from some of them. You can go up inside some of them for a fee (fees varied ranging from 500 yen to 1000 yen).
The festival occurs from July 14-17. The floats remain in place each day except the 17th when they are paraded along a designated parade route. This is considered to be the main part of the festival.
Although it can get crowded particularly at night, I thought the city had a very good handle on things and it was not difficult to get around or even using the public transportation. Just make sure to be patient.
The Gion Festival is one of the biggest festivals in Japan! You shouldn't miss it! It runs for the whole month of July, but the highlight is on the 17th when many men pull large floats through the main streets of Kyoto. The part that all the Japanese people enjoy the best is when the floats have to turn the corner! Many bamboo sticks are put under the wheels of the float and it is turned slowly. I guess it is rather exciting because the floats are so tall and precarious, and there are many young boys sitting in the top playing music. Expect many crowds when you get there, but just take it easy and stop for a cool drink or two, the procession is very slow, so you don't need to rush :-)
If you have time, you should go into Kyoto city (around the Gion area, and Shijo-dori, Kawaramachi-dori) on the 15th & 16th of July at night. The night will be warm and there is a 'festive' air, as many young people are out dressed in their Yukata (summer kimono - for women and men). It is colorful, and lanterns glow from the shopping areas. Walk down to the Yasaka Shrine (everyone is headed this way so just follow the crowd!!) and in the shrine are many glowing night stalls selling frozen pineapple-on-a-stick, shaved-ice, sausages, and Japanese snacks, and trinkets. And you can put a small donation into a wooden box and ring the Shrine's bell to make a wish to the gods. It's just a really nice athmosphere, if you want to see what the Japanese are doing to celebrate the festival. Also, on Fri,Sat, and Sun nights along the Kamo River, many young people play with fireworks, it's especially charming to see young girls in kimono playing with sparklers along the river.
The most picturesque of all festival attractions in Japan.
Festival carts parade around the main street with traditional music.
night bazaar 13-16th July 18:00-
parade 17th July 9:00-11:30 at Sijo-street, Oike-street
Ancient floats make their way down Shijo street to the accompaniment of flutes, gongs and chants. The buzz of the crowd taking over the streets and enduring the opressive heat and humidity... No, it really is great!