A former capital of Japan, Kyoto is in many ways everything that the present capital Tokyo is not. While Tokyo is neon and fast-paced, Kyoto for its part is quieter and more bucolic. Traditional wooden houses line the streets, with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples everywhere you look. Ornamental gardens allow for periods of quiet contemplation. That’s not to say that a holiday in this enthralling town has nothing to offer in terms of action and excitement; quite the opposite, in fact. A break here offers the chance to witness the popular festivals in Kyoto, Japan, that you have to experience, and these charming slices of Japanese culture will keep you coming back for more.
The Japanese New Year festival of Hatsumode really comes into its own if you have friends in the area, as it is a communal occasion set around the first shrine visit of the year. Kyoto residents take the chance to ring the shrine bells, as this is considered an action that will bring good luck in the year to come. Hatsumode does not take place specifically on a given day - many Kyotoites will attend on the evening of December 31st, but those who do not will usually take part in the first few days of January.
2. Toka Ebisu
The festival of Toka Ebisu pays tribute to Ebisu, a Japanese god of good fortune and prosperity. For Kyoto residents, the festival revolves around a specific small shrine in the Gion district of the city. The main day of the festival is the 10th of January, but for a couple of days before and after that you will see a swell of visitors attend the temple to observe a simple prayer ritual, and potentially buy auspicious mementos blessed by a maiden of the shrine. A wooden board by the main altar is considered to be where Ebisu resides and as legend has him to be hard of hearing - pilgrims knock gently on the board to ensure he pays attention to their prayers.
The festival of Setsubun marks the beginning of spring, although it takes place at the beginning of March when it might still feel a lot like winter! Setsubun is celebrated all over the city, but if you’re in Kyoto then the best celebration is deemed to take place at the Yasaka-jinja shrine where roasted soybeans are thrown by the geisha from the nearby Gion district. The throwing of soybeans is considered to cast out devils who bring bad luck and welcome in auspicious spirits for the months ahead.
4. Higashiyama Hanatoro
There are two Hanatoro festivals held annually around Kyoto, with this one taking place in the Higashiyama district of the city in March of every year. The word Hanatoro translates as “Flower and Light Road” and, during the festival, the streets of the relevant district are lined with floral and light decorations. The festival runs for 10 days and also includes live performances while temples and shrines open for extended viewing hours. Outside of Hanatoro, you may find Kyoto to be quiet in the evenings but, during the festival, it is busy and exciting.
5. Southern Higashiyama Temple Illuminations
Around the middle of March, once the Hanatoro has finished, the temples of Southern Higashiyama hold evening events during which the temples themselves, and their gardens, are illuminated for public viewing. Building upon the illumination theme of the Hanatoro festivals, this magical time of year is a perfect time to visit Kyoto as the city really comes alive, and shops stay open later, for the duration. Temples which hold illumination events include Kodai-ji and Shoren-in.
6. Yabusame Shinji
This event takes place as part of the broader Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival), a festival which believers claim brings protection to the town of Kyoto. Yabusame Shinji itself refers to a mounted archery ritual in which riders from the Ogasawara school ride up and down a track 500 meters (1640 ft) long, firing arrows into three targets along the way. Each time an arrow hits the mark, a cheer is heard from the assembled watching throng. Once this ritual is complete, it is understood that the parade route is purified and the Aoi Matsuri procession can proceed safely.
7. Aoi Matsuri
Aoi Matsuri itself is a festival which revolves around northern Kyoto’s two Kamo shrines; Shimogamo and Kamigamo and takes place annually on the 15th of May. The centrepiece event of the festival is a 500-person parade in which congregants walk from the Imperial Palace to the aforementioned shrines. They walk this route while dressed in the aristocratic style of the Heian period, and wearing hollyhock leaves. “Aoi” is the Japanese for “hollyhock”, and the plant is held by legend to protect against thunder and earthquakes alike.
8. Gion Matsuri
Perhaps the most famous festival in all of Japan, Gion Matsuri actually runs for the duration of July, but the key event is the Yamaboko Junko, a procession of large floats which are built and decorated to represent specific themes. A second, smaller procession takes place on the 24th of the month, and tourists who are in the area in the days leading up to these processions can watch the floats being constructed. This is an impressive sight in itself - these are floats which can stand up to 25 meters (83 ft) in height and are constructed without nails. For the entire month, the city is enveloped in a carnival atmosphere.
9. Gojo-zaka Pottery Festival
Gojo-zaka street in Kyoto is the epicenter of this festival which showcases the pottery that has become a generational specialty of Kyotoites. It is an example of a skill passed down through the ages within families. Kyoto itself used to be home to a number of kilns which, for environmental reasons, have since moved outside the city. The Gojo-zaka Toki Matsuri (Gojo-Zaka Pottery festival) takes place every year in the second week of August and is a chance for local artisans to showcase the pieces that their kilns have created.
10. Daimonji Fire Festival
Saving perhaps the best, and arguably the most spectacular, for last, the Daimonji festival takes place on the 16th of August every year, and its formal name is “Gozan no Okuribi” - directly translated, that means “five mountains send on fire”. It is convened to mark the end of the Odon season - during which, it is said, the souls of one’s ancestors make their annual return to visit the living world. Five huge bonfires - each one representing a different Japanese alphabet character - are lit to guide the souls back to Heaven. The fires can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, and are a stunning sight.
See Kyoto in all its glory, at any time of year
Whether you come to Kyoto in the winter months, and see the religious festivals designed to ensure an auspicious year, or show up in late summer to see the spirits returning to heaven, there is a rich cultural tapestry involved in any trip to Kyoto. Giving yourself the chance to see this in all its glory is something you absolutely will not regret, and you’ll get to experience this culture in some of the most beautiful surroundings you could wish for. Plan your trip for the right time, and Kyoto will repay you in memories that can’t be bought.
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