Three major festivals and the importance of 'okuribi'

Three major festivals to celebrate spring, summer and autumn, and the importance of 'okuribi'

Text: Keiko Nakamura 

Kyoto still carries out many traditional festivals that has historical value. Each of them celebrates the season. Hence, experiencing such events shall make one's trip to this city all the more meaningful.


Grand Gion bayashi orchestra and gorgeous Yamahoko parade

Photo: Yuki Sato


The music of Gion festival celebrates the start of summer in Kyoto in July. It started in Heian period (794-1192) as a chanting prayer to cast away the epidemics. This historical event has been carried out for more than 1,100 years begins with kippu-iri ritual on the 1st of July and goes on until the Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony) on 31st. 

The climax of this festival is as Yoiyama and Yamahoko parade. Yoiyama is held between the 14th-16th day as the Saki Matsuri (former festival). Many people gather in yukata (summer casual kimono) and the night market (15th & 16th) in Shijo Karasuma area will be packed with people. Each Yamahoko (portable shrine) station will lit up lantern and their orchestra will cheerfully play music. Visitors can try riding some Yamahoko, look at valuable exhibitions at royal houses and traditional stores that they keep as their family treasure. 


The Yamahoko parade of 23 gorgeously decorated portable shrines on the 17th day is like a moving museum. Shimenawa-kiri (main thatch rope cutting ceremony) by chigo-child (sacred boy riding on the portable shrine float) on Naginataboko, and tsuji-mawashi (the turning of yamahoko) at the junction is impressive.  


The Ato matsuri (latter festival) had been re-started in 2014 after 50 years . It is a quiet period during 21st-23rd with only 10 yamahoko going around and without any night markets. There will be much less people than the Saki matsuri so if you can enjoy the ceremony without the crowd.  

Elegant parade in Heian style

Photo: Kanya Hiromori

Aoi festival is carried out on May 15th as annual festival at Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines, or called Kamo Shrine together. It started as praying ceremony to end the lean harvest during the latter days of Kofun period (mid-third-seventh century) of Emperor Kinmei. More than 500 people dressed in Heian style decorated with aoi leaves parades from Kyoto Imperial Palace to Shimogamo Shrine and to Kamigamo Shrine. Saioudai is selected among the unmarried women as the heroine leading the elegant female group. Among the many rituals, equestrian performance called Yabusame Shinji, horse mounted archery, is famous.


Grand event of traditional crafts and skills

Photo: Yuki Sato

Jidai matsuri is the last of three major festival in Kyoto. It is held on October 22 when the leaves turn red to commemorate the foundation of Kyoto. It initially started on the 1,100 year anniversary in 1895. It consists of a parade of people dressed in accurate costumes from 8 period from Meiji Ishin (Meiji Restoration in 1868) to Enryaku period (782 - 806), such as Ishin Kinno branch and Tokugawa Shogunate branch. More than 2,000 people parades from the Imperial Palace to Heian Jingu. This is rather new festival compared to Gion and Aoi festivals, but the detail costumes, dances and movements are accurately carried.


Noryo events to calm the heat of summer nights

Gozan Okuribi is a seasonal event of summer along with Gion Festival. It is not a festival but a ritual to send off the ancestor's spirits that had returned during the obon period with a fire at 5 mountains. The fire will be lit from 20:00 on August 16th constructing words: Daimonji, myo-ho, funa-gata, hidari-daimonji, and torii-gata. Each motif lit up the summer night and brings a sense of calm atmosphere.



If you have a chance, please try and look into the historical events that had been carried down by Kyoto people.

*Gion Festival / Yamahoko Rengo kai: +81(0)75-741-7211
*Aoi Festival / Aoi Matsuri Gyoretu Hozonkai: +81(0)75-254-7650
*Jidai Matsuri / Heian Jingu: +81(0)75-761-0221 /

Note: Gion Festival is a rain-or-shine event; Aoi and Jidai Festivals will be rescheduled according to weather; Gozan Okuribi is basically carried out regardless of weather but storms may cause lighting times and order.

★This is the end of TRAVEL IDEA ‘10 Things To Do in Kyoto - Being exposed to a traditional culture'. Please take a look at the other TRAVEL IDEA as well.

★TRAVEL IDEA ‘10 Things To Do in Kyoto'
① Visiting Temples and Shrines
② Buying souvenirs
③ Visiting Arashiyama・Sagano
④ Having Kyo-ryori
⑤ Wearing Kimono
⑥ Having Japanese tea
⑦ Having seafood
⑧ Visiting shops in Machiya
⑨ Being exposed to a traditional culture
⑩ Feeling nature