Here you can find all of our previous monthly highlight events. Note that details like dates, times, and places may be outdated and not be correct at this point. Please check our main event calendar for current information!
In the second year of the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar, we present twelve of the shrines of Kyoto. Not just any shrines, those with the most exciting events, of course!
Happy New Year! In the first three days of the New Year, Japanese people visit a shrine to pray for a healthy and successful year to come. One of the most popular shrines in Kyoto for this hatsumode is Yasaka Jinja, drawing millions of visitors each year.
Yasaka Jinja is conveniently situated in Kyoto's Gion district at the eastern end of Shijo dori. Locals call it intimately Gion San, and the annual shrine festival in July – Gion Matsuri – is the most famous and popular festival in Japan.
Originally called Gion-sha, the shrine was founded in 656, more than 130 years before Kyoto. Its main deity is Susano'o-no-mikoto (the brother of the sun goddess); his wife Kushi-inada-hime-no-mikoto and their eight children Yahashira-no-mikogami are enshrined here as well. As the main shrine for Susano'o-no-mikoto (with more than 3000 affiliated shrines), it became one of the 22 shrines of the Japanese guardian deities in 994. During the Meiji Restauration, when a clearer distinction between Shinto and Buddhism was drawn, the shrine was renamed Yasaka, and between 1871 and 1946, it was among the Kanpei Taisha, the special government supported shrines.
The grounds of Yasaka Jinja lie between Higashioji dori and Maruyama park, a popular spot for hanami, cherry blossom viewing. The vermillion Romon gate from 1497 marks its Western entrance and the end of Shijo dori. It houses two statues of Zuishin warriors to guard the shrine together with two pairs of koma-inu lion dogs, a metal pair in front, and a pair carved from stone behind the gate. This imposing gate, overlooking Gion from the top of stone steps, is one of the most recognisable landmarks of Kyoto, and a popular meeting spot for both locals and visitors alike.
However, the official main entrance to the shrine is in the south, marked by a large stone torii. Constructed in 1646, it is 9.5 m high, and one of the largest stone torii in Japan. Stepping through the south gate, at the right hand side there is the Noh stage, used throughout the year for various events. Straight ahead lies the dance stage, where the three mikoshi portable shrines are placed at Gion Matsuri, and behind that lies the main hall of Yasaka Shrine. Built in 1654 on orders of Shogun Ietsuna (like all other current shrine buildings), it combines the honden inner sanctuary and haiden offering hall under a single roof. This makes the main hall of Yasaka shrine the largest of any shrine in Japan, and the only one to do so! By the way, the style of this unique building – with projecting roof not only in front, but also on the sides – has received the name Gion style.
Inside the precincts of Yasaka shrine are many smaller shrines devoted to other deities. For example, at the Utsukushi-gozen shrine, people sprinkle a bit of water on their faces to enhance their beauty. The Hamono shrine is for cutlery, knives, and swords. And the god of enmusubi residing at the Okuninushi shrine hears – and hopefully answers – prayers for love relationships, new and old ones.
The most striking feature of Yasaka shrine, however, are the many lanterns. The paper lanterns hung at the dance stage and the southern entrance gate all bear the names of the local businesses that have donated them to the shrine in hope to prosper. And throughout the shrine grounds, there are beautiful wooden toro lanterns, painted in bright vermillion. As one of few large shrines in Kyoto, the grounds of Yasaka Jinja are open 24/7. In the night, all the lanterns are lit and give the shrine a special atmosphere.
Why not visit Yasaka Jinja for your own hatsumode at New Year? You can pray to Susano'o-no-mikoto for protection and good luck throughout the year, of course. Don't forget to buy the special protective charm for your house that is only available at Yasaka Jinja!
Below are a few of the other events taking place in Yasaka Jinja over the year. You can find even more in our main event calendar. Enjoy!
01, 5:00 Okera-sai People light little straw ropes on the shrine's sacred fire and use it at home to light the first fire in their own hearth.
03, 13:00 Karuta Hajime Shiki Karuta is a traditional card game from Japan. This first game of the year – played by people in gorgeous old costumes – is dedicated to the deities of the shrine.
9 and 10 Ebisu-sha-sai Ebisu is one of the seven lucky gods. From 15:00 on the 9th, there is a parade of the seven lucky gods (shichifukujin) around Shijo dori, and on the 10th, there special prayers for prosperity and family security will be said.
2 and 3 Setsubun This festival is related to the old New Year celebrations taking place at lunar New Year. At 11:00 (only on the 3rd), 13:00 and 15:00, Geisha from all of Kyoto's hanamachi districts will dedicate dances to the deity and scatter beans and rice cakes. On both days, you can get lucky beans and sweet Amazake at the shrine. Find out more about Setsubun in our February 2017 Highlight.
11, 10:00 Kigen-sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan. Prayers for prosperity and happiness are said, and a special Seishin-ryu Ginbu dance will be performed.
14, 7:30 – 9:30 Mikagura-hono Kagura is a special, sacred dance and music. It is performed on this day early in the morning to honor the gods.
15, 10:00 Rei-sai Today is a special day connected with the deity, and a large festival is held. Again, Kagura dance will be dedicated to the gods. Later, from 15:00, there is a special performance of traditional tanka poetry.
Gion Matsuri – see our July 2017 Highlight!
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through November
3, 10:00 Meiji-sai Special prayers and offerings are said in remembrance of the Meiji emperor.
3 Bugaku-hono Bugaku is dance and music that has been performed exclusively at the Japanese court for more than 1200 years. Opened to the general public only after WWII, this is a special dedication to the deities of Yasaka shrine.
28, 4:00 Sanka-shiki The chief priest of Yasaka shrine lights the Okera Toro lantern. This fire, produced with a mallet and mortar made from hinoki wood is kept burning in the shrine throughout the year.
31, 15:00 Oharae-shiki A ceremony to purify oneself from the sins of the preceding year.
31, 19:00 Joya-sai The Okera fire lit two days ago will be moved to two lanterns. People carry this fire home to ignite a candle on their own altar at home.
31, 22:00 Imamiyaebisu-jinja tai hono In this interesting ceremony, the last one before the New Year, the Imamiyaebisu shrine offers breams to Yasaka shrine.
All photos copyright Yasaka Jinja.
2017 marks the first year of the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar. In the monthly highlights we presented the major events in Kyoto that not even the locals would want to miss.
February is the coldest month in Japan, so it may come as a surprise that the setsubun festival - usually on February 3rd - marks the end of winter. The festival does go back more than 1000 years, and in the old lunar calendar, it was in fact part of the New Year's celebrations. This explains the main ceremony of setsubun: The driving out of demons: the demons and bad luck of the old year, and also the demons of winter.
And how to drive them out? With mamemaki bean throwing, which is great fun for kids (and adults as well), and is still done in many households of Japan. At mamemaki, one person wears a demon mask, and the other family members throw soybeans at him all the while shouting "oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" - out with the demons, in with the luck! As for the second half of the incantation, this is also done using soybeans. Once the demons have been successfully pelted out of the door, one is to pick up the scattered beans - called fukumame, fortune beans, by the way - and eat them: One bean per year of age plus one for the coming year.
As said above, many people do mamemaki in their homes, but it is also a ritual that is performed in many shrines and even temples of Japan. There, people throw not just fukumame, but also smaller and larger presents into the crowds, which may push and shove to get their share of the luck. In the larger shrines, this ceremony may be performed by celebrities, famous actors, sumo wrestlers in Tokyo, and Geisha in Kyoto for example.
Cross dressing is a very old setsubun tradition which is not generally practised any longer. However, in the hanamachi districts of Kyoto, Geiko dress up as men and their customers are supposed to dress as women if they are being entertained on the evening of setsubun.
Another setsubun custom that originated in Osaka, but has lately spread to the rest of Japan is eating eho-maki, a large, uncut roll of futomaki sushi. The idea is to eat the whole sushi roll in a single sitting and without speaking while facing the lucky direction of the year. If you want to give it a try, this year you should be facing north-north-west.
Below are a few popular spots for setsubun in Kyoto:
Feb. 2nd from 18:00: main setsubun ritual - banishing of the demons
This is the largest of the setsubun festivals in Kyoto, and the only one to last three days. For your own bean throwing ceremony, you can buy small packs of lucky beans for 200 YEN that include raffle tickets to win various prizes. The winners will be announced on Feb. 4th. Hundreds of food stalls that are open until late at night line the entrance to the shrine; demon masks, eho-maki and other items can be bought there.
Feb. 3rd from 23:00: Karo-sai festival
The Karo-sai is a bonfire where people burn last year's charms and amulets, but also personal papers and similar belongings. If you have anything to burn, you should bring it to the shrine a few days before that time.
Feb 2nd and Feb 3rd from 13:00 - 16:00 bean scattering rituals at each full hour
Yasaka Shrine is the shrine of Gion, and here, Maiko of the different Geiko districts of Kyoto will scatter beans for the visitors to catch. Dance performances will take place at 15:00 and 16:00 on both days.
Feb 3rd from 13:00
Heian Shrine dedicates all day to Setsubun, from the Kyogen performance starting at 11:30 and the demon chasing ceremony starting at 14:00 to the bean scattering at 15:00 and the final bonfire from 16:00. Throughout the day, sweet amazake will be served for free.
March 3rd marks the day of hina matsuri, the doll festival. Since this time of the year can also be considered the beginning of spring, it is also called momo-no-sekku (peach festival), or girl's day. In the weeks leading up to March 3rd, elaborate displays of dolls are prepared. Many of these doll sets have been passed down in a family for long times, so the girls are not supposed to play with them, or actually never were.
This is a typical traditional hinadan displaying dolls in a style of dress of 1000 years ago, as well as accessories. The two main dolls on the top tier, representing a couple of court nobles, are called the dairi-bina. One step below are three ladies in waiting, usually holding cups for drinking sake. Yet another tier lower contains five court musicians with drums and flutes. Below them are the minister of the left - the one with the beard, since this is the higher rank and thus the person must be older - and the minister of the right. Finally, at the lowest layer, there are three footmen or samurai, the lowest retainers of the court.
Between the ladies in waiting, there are plates with colorful cakes; these are mochi and meant as an offering to the gods. At the bottom of the display there are the goods for daily use in the court: cabinets and dressing tables with mirrors, trays for food and drink, palanquin and oxcart, etc. These are miniatures of the real things, but for very expensive displays, they were made from the same materials and with the same decorations as their grown-up counterparts. The dolls also are dressed in real silk clothing, and sometimes even real hair was used - another reason why a good sized hinadan can be very expensive.
The doll festival with its expensive displays goes back to the time of court nobles and samurai. However, during the Edo period the merchant class became rich as a whole, and they wanted to emulate the samurai. So, the dolls festival with its hinadan became a widespread institution, yet another way to display their wealth.
The doll festival is a somewhat private affair, but many shops throughout Kyoto display hinadan in their shop windows. There are a few public events at shrines and temples related to Hina Matsuri. Here are a few of them:
March 1st to April 3rd, 10:00 - 16:00
The girl's celebration, a Hina Matsuri ceremony will be held on March 1st from 11:00 - 11:30 (reservation required). The exhibition will feature many kinds of Japanese dolls, including life-sized ones. Entry: 600 YEN.
March 3rd, from 10:00
After a special ceremony, people release straw hina dolls into the stream at Shimogamo Shrine to pray for the health of girls.
March 3rd, 13:00 - 16:00
A dance performance and tea service will be featured. From 15:00, people in Heian court dress will take the place of the dolls on a hinadan. Entry: 2000 YEN
March 3rd-5th, 10:00 - 16:30
On Omiya street south of the crossing of Imadegawa-Omiya
The Nishijin area was the main area for silk weaving and kimono production. Some of the traditional Machiya houses of silk wholesale merchants will exhibit their own collection of hinadan, dolls, and accessories.
April in Japan is cherry blossom time. After the long, cold, and dark winter, this marks the beginning of the warmer season. Although the Japanese cherries - sakura - may have carried buds for a while already, it will take an exeptionally warm day for them to open up. On such a day however, all of them seem to explode at the same time! And what has been merely a brown bunch of gnarled trees the week before now lines the streets and riverwalks of Kyoto in blinding white or delicate pink.
This is one of the few times when the Japanese open up a little. You will see a great number of people of all ages and walks of life flocking to the most scenic spots and taking pictures of what appears to be every single cherry blossom. Honestly, those little white flowers do have their very special allure - no matter how many you may have seen before!
And now is the time for what is called hanami - literally: flower viewing - a picnic under the cherry trees. Fresh couples or large groups of coworkers, friends and family meet under the trees to eat rice balls and sweets and drink beer and sake. And to enjoy the lovely warm weather that coaxed the trees out of their hibernation - and them out of the house.
Kyoto has many popular spots for hanami - whether you want to have a full-blown picnic with everybody you know, take a leisurly stroll somewhere, or just snap a few quick pictures.
Numerous sakura trees line the Katsura river in Arashiyama, the Kamogawa river, Shirakawa stream, and the Philosophers Path. On the Lake Biwa Canal opposite Kyoto Zoo, you can even take a short boat ride underneath the trees (until May 7). Temples and shrines all over Kyoto offer great viewing spots, for example Hirano-jinja, Nanzen-ji, and Kiyomizu-dera. Especially famous for its cherry blossoms is Daigo-ji temple, where on April 9, a hanami party from the 16th century is recreated each year by local actors in old costumes. In Nijo castle, there will be a special light up in the evening (18:00 - 21:00) to place both the castle and the surrounding cherry trees in the best light possible (until April 16). Maruyama park with its huge weeping cherry probably attracts the most lively crowd in Kyoto, and there are also plenty of foodstalls if you forgot your rice balls.
Even though cherry blossoms are very fragile, and a strong wind or heavy rain will destroy their beauty immediately, there are different types of cherry trees that bloom at different times. So do not despair if you miss the sakura now, there are plenty of spots in Kyoto where you can catch them all through April.
Wherever you go for your hanami - we hope you enjoy the spring season as it brings one of the most Japanese of all pastimes.
The Hollyhock, Kamo, or Aoi festival involves two of the oldest shrines of Kyoto and dates back to the 6th century, some 200 years before the capital of Japan and the imperial court were moved to Kyoto.
At this time, bad weather had led to a failing of the crops and a famine followed. The emperor was convinced that the deities of the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines in Kyoto needed to be appeased and so he sent a messenger to offer prayers and gifts. The weather promptly improved - and a new annual ritual was born. It was further strengthened when the same deities became the tutelary gods of the newly founded capital. Today, Aoi festival is one of the three main festivals in Kyoto and draws hundreds of spectators each year.
The main event, a large procession with some 500 participants, is led by a man on horseback - the imperial messenger. He is to make offerings to the shrines, pray for peace, and will receive sacred letters in return. The other important figure of Aoi Matsuri is the Saio-dai, a young woman from Kyoto representing an imperial princess. In former times, the Saio-dai was sent to serve the gods at the shrine, hence the purification ceremony a few days before. They are accompanied by a large number of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting, either on horseback or on foot, and there are also solo horses among the offerings to the shrine, as well as oxen and two large oxcarts. Everything and everybody is decorated with hollyhock (aoi) leaves, which gives the festival its name.
Once the procession has arrived at Shimogamo shrine, several rituals are taking place; for example the hiki-uma (the viewing of the sacred horse), the kemba (where horses trot in front of the gods), and so-called azuma-asobi dance and music. However, most of the spectators wait for the horse race that is also taking place in Shimogamo shrine on this day.
The procession then moves on to Kamigamo shrine, where the final ceremony of the day, the Shato-no-gi, is held.
The main event is a large procession with 500 participants and a length of 800 metres on May 15th. But there are many smaller events in both shrines leading up to it in the two weeks before, including religious ceremonies, horse races, and mounted archery.
The horses that will compete in the race on May 5th are checked and ranked, and the line up for the race will be finalised.
Men in court costumes of the Heian period take part in mounted archery.
The Saio-dai, the main female participant of the parade and her 40 attendants undergo a purification rite at the shrine to prepare them for the main event.
This is a race where pairs of horses compete. This ritual goes back to the year 1093 and has been called the origin of horse riding in Japan.
Priests are using bows and arrows to ward off evil spirits. A group of archers in traditional costumes engage in a contest.
Priests from Shimogamo go to Mikage shrine on one of the eastern mountains of Kyoto to welcome the spirit of the gods. More than 100 people take part in this procession, which is said to be the oldest religious procession of Japan. In the afternoon, Japanese dance and music is performed.
On May 15th, the main event takes place - a large procession of more than 500 people in traditional costumes. The procession starts form the Imperial Palace and visits both Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrine where several rituals are performed.
The procession starts at 10:30 at Kyoto Imperial Palace. It moves through the South Gate, Marutamachi Dori and Kawaramachi Dori to Shimogamo Shrine (planned arrival at 11:40. The horse race there starts at 13:00. At 14:20 the procession moves on via Shimogamo Hondori, Kitaoji Dori and along the Kamogamo river to Kamigamo Shrine (planned arrival at 15:30). In case of rain, the event will be postponed.
The best photo opportunities present themselves in the imperial palace and the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrine. Alternatively, the bridges at Demachiyanagi, Kitaoji, and Misono are good for watching the parade pass. The events are free, but to get a good spot at the shrines it is advisable to be at least 45 minutes early. There, paid seating is also available. Tickets can be bought at the Kyoto Tourist Information Centre, through travel agents or at convenience stores. Seats at Kamigamo can only be bought at the shrine on May 15th, starting at 11:30.
June marks the beginning of summer in Japan, and the end of the first half of the year. On June 30th, many Shinto shrines celebrate the Nagoshi-no-Harae ritual. This is a purification rite dating back to the Nara period (some 1300 years). It is meant for people to atone for their sins of the first half year and at the same time to purify themselves and pray for health in the second half of the year.
The main ingredient of a proper Nagoshi-no-Harae purification is a large chinowa wreath made from miscanthus reeds. People are supposed to walk through this chinowa in a specific pattern resembling an infinity sign in order to purify themselves and ward off illness in the future. Some people even take out reeds of the wreath, make their own, smaller version of it, and mount it at the entrance of their homes. These days, many shrines sell appropriately sized chinowa wreaths as talismans though.
Another ceremony that is sometimes performed involves little man-shaped pieces of paper. Depending on the shrine, people may have to write their ailments onto it or rub the paper doll onto aching parts of the body. The dolls are then floated into the sacred waters of the shrine or ritually burned in order to take the illness away.
Traditionally, this ritual was performed by the imperial court twice a year, at mid summer, and at the end of the year. However, the winter purification is not popular any longer, but the summer Nagoshi-no-Harae has spread throughout the country. Part of its attraction may lie in the legend that is told about its origins:
Once upon a time, Susanoo-no-mikoto, the brother of the sun godess, was travelling incognito through Japan. One night he was looking for lodgings, but was refused by the richest man in town. Instead, the poor Somin Shorai offered his own little hut, and in the morning, the god gave him little chinowa wreaths and instructed him to wear it for protection. Promptly, Somin and his family survived the plague that was coming soon after.
Below are the most popular shrines for the Nagoshi-no-Harae in Kyoto, but many others also offer the rite on June 30th. There will always be a chinowa wreath to walk through (sometimes set up a few days early), and some shrines also sell little paper dolls for an additional purification rite.
Here you can find the largest chinowa in Kyoto, more than 5 metres in diameter. it is set up on June 25th already.
A lovely little shrine in the cool mountains north of Kyoto. Here also, the chinowa is set up on the 25th.
The chinowa ceremony is in the morning from 10:00. In the evening, from 20:00, people can throw paper dolls into the pond as a special form of purification.
Another ceremony involving paper dolls. Participants will receive a small chinowa wreath to take home.
A chinowa is set up at the black torii of Nonomiya Shrine in Arashiyama.
July in Kyoto means one single thing: Gion matsuri. One of the three largest festivals of Japan, Gion matsuri lasts the whole month, and its yamahoko parades on the 17th and 24th of July draw thousands of spectators from abroad as well as Japan.
Gion matsuri dates back to 869 when the Japanese people were suffering from a plague and the emperor dispatched a messenger to Gion shrine to appeal to the gods for an end of the plague and famine. Susanoo no mikoto - the brother of the sun goddess - is enshrined at Gion, and in order to relieve the sick, his spirit was carried in portable shrines (called mikoshi) through Kyoto. The plague promptly ended, and so the ceremony was repeated in times of need, until about 100 years later, when the Gion procession became an annual event.
Gion matsuri is associated with Gion shrine (also known as Yasaka shrine) and the wealthy merchants of the inner city. Throughout July, there are events of all sizes and many old machiya houses of the central district are open and their treasures are put on display.
The main events of Gion matsuri are certainly the two parades on July 17th and 24th, called the Saki and Ato Matsuri Grand Parade, respectively. Enormous hoko floats, 25 m high and weighing up to 12 tons are pulled through the streets by 30 - 40 men. On top of each hoko sit a number of musicians who play the characteristic Gion-bayashi tune of the festival on flutes, cymbals, and drums.
The smaller yama floats weigh about 1.5 tons and are elaborately decorated with priceless tapestries, many of them of foreign origin and dating back to the middle ages. On top of each yama float there is a scene from a well known Japanese or Chinese story depicted with life-sized wooden dolls, also elaborately dressed.
Other than this, there are many smaller events mostly at Yasaka shrine and throughout the inner city, as well as the famous yoiyama, a street festival that lasts three evenings where the inner city is transferred into a pedestrian area with lots of food stalls.
Let us have a look at the main events of Gion matsuri in July:
Yasaka shrine, from 10:00
The crew including the Chigo of the first float in the first parade will go to Yasaka shrine to pray for safety during the festival.
Yasaka shrine, from 16:30
A procession of men and children walk from Yasaka shrine along Shijo to Kawaramachi dori to welcome the mikoshi that will follow later in the evening.
Yasaka shrine, from 19:00
The three portable shrines which will house the gods during the festival will be carried to Kamogawa river and purified with its waters. Enormous torches made from straw and reeds will be carried before the mikoshi to purify Shijo street before them.
throughout inner city
The 23 yamahoko floats fo the first parade are constructed on the streets. They are made entirely out of wood - and without a single nail! Parts that are reused each year are stored in warehouses near Yasaka shrine or in the city.
throughout inner city
The people of each float community try pulling their hoko or yama. At this time, women and even children are allowed to do so as well - it is said to bring good luck to everybody who tries.
throughout inner city and Shijo dori to Yasaka shrine
The three nights before the Saki parade, the inner city of Kyoto turns into an enormous pedestrian zone. People are invited to see the finished yamahoko, and protective charms are available at each of them. The streets are lined with food stalls and souvenir stands; and this is one of the few times to see the Japanese letting their hair down, fully relaxed and at ease, and many wearing their summer kimono.
Shijo dori from 9:00
This is the first parade of Gion matsuri, where 23 yamahoko will pass through Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike dori. The official beginning is at 9:00 when the Chigo - a boy riding on the Naginata hoko - cuts a straw rope spanned across Shijo dori. The Naginata hoko always leads the Saki parade, and it is the only one that still has a Chigo riding it (some of the other hoko have dolls instead). After the Naginata hoko come the other 22 floats in the order of a lottery draw.
The best places to watch the parade are at the corners Shijo-Kawaramachi and Kawaramachi-Oike dori. There, the 12 ton hoko have to be turned by 90 degrees - with a lot of manpower instead of a steering wheel! For a good spot at a corner, you should be about one hour early. The whole parade may take up to two hours to pass any one spot on the route. Reserved seats (also for the Ato Parade on the 24th) are available at Oike dori in front of Kyoto City Hall and can be bought at the Kyoto Tourist Information center and the Kansai Tourist Information Center Kyoto.
Yasaka shrine, from 18:00
In the evening after the Saki parade, the three purified mikoshi of Yasaka shrine will be carried on different routes through the city to the Otabisho on Shijo dori, where they will remain for a week. This is the main religious event of Gion matsuri, and the one part that goes back more than 1000 years.
throughout inner city
The 10 yamahoko floats fo the first parade are constructed.
throughout inner city
The people of each float community try pulling or carrying their hoko or yama. Again, active participation is encouraged!
throughout inner city
This time, there are no food stalls, and no pedestrian party in the evenings, so the atmosphere is much more quiet. However, in the community houses of each yamahoko, folding screens, the original tapestries, and the yama displays can be seen up close. Usually, a small fee needs to be paid to do so. Souvenirs and protective charms are available at the houses again.
Oike Dori, from 9:30
This is the second parade of Gion matsuri, going in the opposite direction of the first one. It is traditionally ended by the large Ofune hoko, a float shaped like a boat, which has been reconstructed only a few years ago.
Yasaka Shrine, from 10:00
Some 10 large umbrella floats decorated with flowers depart from Yasaka shrine down Shijo dori. They will pass north through Teramachi dori and will immediately follow the Ato parade south through Kawaramachi dori.
Otabisho, from 17:00
The three mikoshi which have been on display at the Otabisho, will be carried back through the inner city to Yasaka shrine. When all of them have arrived there, the deities they carried, will be transferred back into the main shrine - in complete darkness. The Kanko Sai ends around midnight.
Yasaka shrine, from 20:30
As before on the 10th, the three mikoshi will be carried to the river to be purified before they are stored away until next year.
Yasaka Shrine, from 10:00
This summer purification rite marks the end of the month-long Gion festival. Passing through the chinowa wreath is meant as purification for the rest of the year.
Obon is an ancient Buddhist rite to honour the spirits of the ancestors. It is believed that ones forefathers come to visit their former homes and thus, many people return there as well to pay their respects at the family grave. This makes Obon one of the busiest travel seasons in Japan, because even though Obon is not an official national holiday, many companies close and allow their employees a few days off.
In Kyoto, Obon takes place from the 14th to the 16th August, and it is all about lights and fire. On the first day of Obon, so-called chochin lanterns are lit inside houses or in graveyards as a welcome and guiding light for the homecoming spirits. In the countryside, people sometimes light little straw fires at the entrance gate to their properties to do that, but this is not customary in Kyoto city.
At the Higashi Otani cemetery, each tomb gets their own lantern when people visit their ancestors with offerings of food and sake. At night, the view from the top of the hill filled with lanterns down to the brightly lit inner city of Kyoto is spectacular.
Many temples hold special ceremonies called sento-kuyo or manto-kuyo (1000 or 10000 lights). People are invited to light candles or lanterns as prayer offerings to the Buddha and in remembrance of those who have passed away.
August 5th, from sunset to 21:00
August 8th - 10th from 20:00 (light-up) and August 16th from 18:00 (send-off)
Of course, it is always a good idea not to let the spirits linger for too long and to send them back to the land of the dead again eventually. Once more, this is done by lighting lanterns and fires, and in this, Kyoto overshadows all of Japan with the Gozan no Okuribi fires.
Literally translated, Gozan no Okuribi means 5 mountains sending fire, but the ceremony is better known as the Daimonji. On five of the mountains surrounding Kyoto, huge bonfires in the shapes of Chinese characters and pictograms are lit to send the ancestral spirits off. The fires are lit in 5 minute intervals and burn for about 20 minutes each.
The first fire to be lit is the Dai - a character meaning great or large - on Mount Daimonji at 20:00. This is the most popular of the bonfires, and since it can be seen from all of Kamogamo river north of Sanjo bridge, it is very easy to get to. The best viewing spots for the Dai are at Demachiyanagi, which means it is very crowded there with Japanese wearing their yukata and sometimes even holding a picnic with food and sake.
The characters Myo-ho (wondrous Dharma) are lit at 20:05 on Mount Mantoro and Mont Daikokuten, respectively. The best viewing spots for them are at the Takano river north of Takano bridge and Kitayama dori near Notre Dame University.
At 20:10 follows the Funagata in the shape of a boat, on Mount Funayama. It can be admired from Kitayama dori again, this time north-west of Kitayama bridge is good.
The Hidari-dai, a smaller dai character located on Mount Okita is lit at 20:15 and can best be seen from Nishioji dori near Kinkakuji.
At 20:20 the final Toriigata bonfire in the shape of a shrine gate is lit Mount Mandara in Arashiyama and can be best seen from Matsuobashi bridge and Hirosawa-no-ike pond.
Since the fires are located on the mountains surrounding the city, there is no single point from which all five can be seen. Some hotels in town offer special Daimonji viewing tickets for their roof terraces, however, from the top of Funaokayama Park near Kitaoji dori, the first four bonfires can be viewed for free. For the more adventurous, it may be possible - with a little planning and some sort of speedy transporation - to catch the first three fires from the places mentioned above in a single evening.
After the fires have gone out, there is one more, final Obon event: from 19:00 - 21:00 at the Togetsu-kyo Bridge at Nakanoshima Park in Arashiyama, paper lanterns are floated on the river, taking the souls of the ancestors with them to the ocean and back to the realm of the dead. Why don’t you go there and float your own in remembrance of your loved ones?
Japanese people enjoy getting together for nature viewing, just think of the cherry blossom events in spring. In summer, when the nights are hot, many temples and shrines host night time viewings of their gardens that are lit with special lights to emphasise their beauty.
However, the biggest nature viewing event in this time is Jugoya (also called Tsukimi), the viewing of the autumn harvest moon. Although all full moons are worth viewing, the harvest moon is considered the brightest and most beautiful of them all.
The origins of this moon viewing event are unclear, but it probably comes from China and was introduced to Japan in the 8th century Nara period. Aristocrats would meet for a boat ride to view the moon twofold, in the sky and in the lake, and tanka poems were made in celebration of the full moon. Traditionally it was held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calender, and the term Jugoya literally means the 15th night. When Japan introduced the solar calender during the Meiji era, Jugoya was beginning to be celebrated in September on the day of the full moon.
For Jugoya, many shrines and temples perform special ceremonies in order to pray for a good harvest and open their gardens during the night. Tea ceremonies are very popular, as are dance and music performances. Many Japanese also like to visit ponds, since it is considered especially refined not to look at the moon directly, but rather to watch its image in the still waters of a lake.
As a special moonviewing snack, tsukimi dango are sold, small round sweets made from rice flour. Those are just white and round, but there are other sweets that are shaped in the form of a white rabbit. After all, in the Asian tradition, there is a rabbit living in the moon. Children are taught a little song that goes like this:
Usagi usagi nani mite haneru
Jugoya o-tsuki-sama mite haneru
Little rabbit, hopping around, what do you see?
When hopping around, I see the Jugoya moon.
There are many places from which you can enjoy the autumn harvest moon celebrations in Kyoto. Below are the most popular.
Because Jugoya is tied to the full moon, the festival is highly movable over the years. Usually, the Jugoya celebrations take place in September during or around the full moon. However, the harvest full moon will fall into October in the years 2017, 2020, 2025, 2028, 2031, 2036, 2039.
The special moon watching tea ceremony will be held every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday throughout September. It costs 6.000 yen per person (including entrance and sweet); reservation required under 075（561）9966. Check the homepage (in Japanese) for details: www.kodaiji.com
Kamigamo Shrine offers tea ceremonies from 15:00 - 19:30. There will be a ceremony at 17:00 and various music performances from 18:00. Also from 18:00, the first 300 people will receive free tsukimi dango and sake.
Traditional koto music and dance will be offered by performers in Heian style costumes.
The evening starts with a sacred ritual at 18:30. From 19:00 to about 21:00, there will be performances of Koto, Japanese Dance, Shakuhachi, and Gagaku (Heian court music). You can also enjoy matcha from 19:00, 500 yen (including sweets).
The large Osawa pond of Daikaku-ji temple has attracted visitors for Jugoya for a long time. There are dragon boat rides and tea ceremonies; tickets are available on a first come first serve basis and may be sold out quickly. There are food stalls on the premises as well. In 2017, not all of the temple area is accessible.
Tickets for dragon boat ride: 1000 yen, sold from 15:00, max. 4 tickets per person.
Tickets for tea ceremony: 800 yen, sold from 17:00, you are asked to not stay longer than 15 minutes.
Kyoto’s touristical October highlight is Jidai matsuri on October 22nd. Literally, Jidai matsuri means Era Festival, but it is more commonly translated into English as the Festival of the Ages. It is the final of the three great festivals in Kyoto featuring parades through the city, after the Aoi matsuri in May and the Gion matsuri in July.
Jidai matsuri is a comparatively young festival - it first took place in 1895, 1100 years after Kyoto had become the capital of Japan, and only a few years after it had lost this title to Tokyo when the Meiji emperor moved there after the restoration. Like most festivals in Japan, Jidai matsuri is connected to a shrine, in this case to Heian shrine. Heian shrine was also built in 1895 as a 2/3 replica of the former imperial palace, and enshrines both the first and the last emperor that resided in Kyoto, Kanmu and Komei, respectively.
Jidai matsuri was established to commemorate the history of Kyoto, and about 2000 people take part in the procession each year, dressed in historical costumes ranging over more than a millenium. The parade starts at noon at the Imperial Palace and is led by the mayor of Kyoto and other city officials in a horse carriage from the mid 19th century. From there, the parade literally goes back in time, from the Edo period - which makes up the largest part of the parade - to the Muromachi period, and all the way to the early Heian period of the 11th century. At the very end of the parade there are two portable mikoshi shrines carrying the spirits of emperor Kanmu and Komei back to Heian Shrine, from which they had come early that morning.
Most of the participants depict warriors and famous samurai, for example Oda Nobunaga, a contemporary of the first shogun Tokugawa Iyeyasu. However, famous women are also represented, for example Murasaki Shikibu, writer of the Genji Monogatari. Strewn throughout the parade are common people as well, foot soldiers and pages, merchants and women selling flowers...
What makes Jidai Matsuri so attractive is the enormous amount of detail that goes into the costume design and the props that are used. From the clothing (some fabric is dyed according to ancient procedures) and the appropriate hairstyle, down to straw sandals and other accessories like helmets, jewelry, fans, weapons, even water buckets for the horses, everything has been meticulously researched and recreated, sometimes using very old traditional methods. It is like watching history unfolding itself - an occasion no real Japan afficionado should miss.
Imperial Palace (from 12:00) - Marutamachi dori (west) - Karasuma dori (south, ca. 12:30) - Oike dori (east, ca. 12:50) - Kawaramachi dori (south, ca. 13:20) - Sanjo dori (east, ca. 13:40) - Jingu dori (north, ca. 14:15) - Heian Shrine (ca. 14:30)
The whole procession takes about 2 hours to pass any one point. The most scenic viewing spots are in the Imperial Palace and at Heian Shrine. General access is free, but paid seats are available at the palace, along Oike dori, and along Jingu dori. Tickets can be bought at various tourist information centres throughout Kyoto for 2.050 YEN per person.
Autumn has arrived in Japan, and it is slowly getting colder. There are still many beautiful and sunny days with blue sky, but when the night temperature drops further, the time for the koyo has arrived. Koyo is the Japanese version of Indian summer, and when the mountains are ablaze with yellow, orange, and red maple trees (called momiji), the Japanese go out to enjoy the last colours before winter. In fact, the momiji season is just as popular for travelling as is hanami in spring, and now you can see many people in hiking gear on buses and in trains.
In Kyoto you do not really need to hike long distances onto steep mountains, just strolling through town will be enough to see plenty of momiji. The maple leaves begin to turn after a sharp drop in temperature, and in Kyoto, the best time for momijigari - the hunt for the momiji leaves - usually starts at about November 15th and takes some two weeks or so.
The best places to admire the koyo in Kyoto are clearly near the mountains. Higashiyama is particularly beautiful, and many people flock to the streets and temples there. You can take a long walk along the mountain, starting in the south at Nanzenji temple, a very popular spot, then walking north to Eikan-do temple, which is especially praised for its momiji. From there, you can walk further north along the Philosopher Path leading up to Ginkakuji temple, and lots of private gardens along the way show off their beautifully coloured trees.
For a full koyo immersion, take the Eizan railway to Kifune. On the way, there is the so-called momiji tunnel, where trees from left and right the rail track form a colorful tunnel for the train to pass through. Don’t worry about missing it: there are special, cars with glass ceilings, and the train goes extra slowly though the tunnel to make enough time for photos.
In the western part of the city, Arashiyama is the place to go, where the blazing mountains are mirrored in the river below. You can enjoy a boat ride on the river or a train ride along it - or simple walk along the numerous mountain paths yourself.
A bit further north from Arashiyama are the popular temples of Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, and Ninna-ji. Especially the latter one, built as a retreat for a retired emperor, has beautiful trees, and the large gardens of both Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji invite you to spend extra time there.
During the koyo season, many temples throughout Kyoto have special evening light-ups, where their gardens and their momiji trees are literally put in the spot light. Usually, the light-up starts at sunset, and lasts until about 21:00. Popular spots for evening light-ups are:
until December 10, daily until 22:00
until December 10, daily until 22:00
until December 6, daily, entrance until 20:30, gates close at 21:00
until December 3, daily until 21:00
December is probably the busiest month in Japan. Everybody is scrambling to find time buying End-of-Year presents, writing dozens of New Year's cards, and attending End-of-Year parties. Since Christmas is not celebrated in Japan and thus no public holiday, life only slows down in the last few days towards New Year's Eve.
New Year's Eve in Japan - and especially in Kyoto - is a quiet and spiritual observance, very far removed from the noisy parties and fireworks of the Western world. Most people visit their parents during this time - the first three days of January are national holidays - and together they may visit a temple to watch or even participate in the Joya-no-kane.
The Joya-no-kane is an important Buddhist ceremony. Almost all Buddhist temples in Japan have a large temple bell, and at Joya-no-kane at New Year's Eve, this temple bell is struck 108 times. This number represents the 108 worldly desires according to Buddhist teaching, and each time the bell is struck, those who listen to the bell are cleared from this particular desire. The ancient tradition dictates that the first 107 times the bell rings in the old year, and the final, 108th time takes place the New Year. Listening to the temple bells echoing through the cold and quiet winter night of Kyoto is truly a spiritual experience.
If mere listening is not enough, we can recommend the following places to watch or even participate in the Joya-no-kane celebrations in Kyoto.
December 31st, from 8 pm
Chion-in is the most famous temple for Joya-no-kane in Kyoto - the event draws some 30,000 visitors each year! The bell of Chion-in is one of the largest in Japan: with a height of 3.3 metres and a diameter of 2.8 metres. It weighs about 70 tons and ringing it requires 17 monks!
The temple gates of Chion-in open at 8 pm; there will be sutra readings at 10:20 and 10:35. The bell ringing itself starts at about 10:40, with intervals of about 1 minute. Note that there is a one-way path through the temple precincts and that the entrance gates will be closed again at 11 pm (or earlier if it is very crowded).
December 31st, from about 11 pm
As mentioned above, many temples celebrate the Joya-no-kane, and some of them even allow visitors to ring the bell! A popular spot for DIY Joya-no-kane is Kurodani temple near Heian shrine. The ceremony starts at about 11 pm, there are prayers in the temple's main hall throughout, and free hot tea and amazake will be offered to the participants.
December 31st, from about 11 pm
Nearby Kurodani Temple lies Shinnyodo Temple, where you can also help with the bell ringing. This temple is especially popular among foreigners living in Kyoto. Hot tea and amazake will be offered to the participants here as well.
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