Experience Tradition: A Comprehensive Guide to Gion Matsuri 2024

by Nana Young

There’s no better way to experience Japanese tradition than the Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s super festival. For one month, the city becomes a hub for cultural displays, float processions, music, and dance. Read on to discover everything you need to know about the Gion Matsuri, including the highlights of the 2024 festival.


Traditional event of Gion Matsuri festival at hot summer day in Kyoto.

When it comes to Japanese festivals, it doesn’t get bigger than Gion Matsuri. Celebrated annually in Kyoto, the festival is held at the Yasaka Shrine (formerly Gion Shrine), lasts for an entire month, and consists of multiple ceremonies. Each year, more than a million people attend the event, and many of them come from overseas.

Throughout the month of July, Kyoto evolves into a never-ending party. You can hardly find suitable accommodation unless you book it in advance. The best part comes in the middle of July, when participants display a grand procession of giant floats known as Yamaboko Junko. Days before the procession, the festivities are already in full swing thanks to the Yoiyama three-day street parties happening in the evenings. Expect to see streets overflowing with people fully dressed in their festive yukata, a bathrobe similar to kimono. If you’ve always wanted to try Japanese street food, you can eat to your heart’s content during this period. The streets are loaded with yatai (food stalls) selling delicious foods like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakitori, and taiyaki.

But amidst all the parades, music, dance, and gourmet delights lies a deep cultural and religious significance. The Gion Matsuri used to be a Shinto festival for purification and pacification. Today, it’s a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage because of how much it showcases Kyoto’s history, visual arts, and traditional performances.

What is Gion Matsuri?

An Image of Gion Festival, famous festivals in Kyoto's downtown area

Gion Matsuri is the largest and most famous festival in Japan, taking place every July at the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. It lasts throughout the year and consists of several main events and attractions, many of which take place at the shrine.

Brief History of Gion Matsuri

The origin of the Gion Matsuri dates back to the 9th century. In 869, the people of Kyoto were suffering from a deadly plague. At the time, people thought that vengeful spirits were the cause of the misfortune. To appease the gods, Emperor Seiwa commissioned a religious ceremony involving prayers to Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the deity of Yasaka Jinja Shrine located in the Gion District of Kyoto.

There were 66 traditional Japanese provinces in that era, so they made 66 decorated hoko (halberds) and several mikoshi (portable shrines) at the Shinsen-en Imperial palace garden. That was how Gion Matsuri was born. The people of Kyoto would go on to repeat the festival whenever there was an outbreak of diseases. The year 1000 saw the festival transform into an annual event that lasted throughout July.

Evolution of Gion Festival Over the Centuries

The halberds were gradually giving way to umbrellas and banners, hundreds of years after the first Gion festival. Decorated Yamaboko floats became popular in the 14th century. The Onin civil war of 1467–1477 marked a temporary end to the festival. However, Shogun Oda Nobunaga revived it in the 1500s. The modern version of Gion Matsuri has two major processions of Yamaboko floats. The first takes place on July 17 and the second occurs on July 24. The other days of the month are filled with several events and attractions. Read on to learn more about them.

The Highlights of Gion Festival 2024

Participants in Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, Japan on July, festival floats

There are 31 days in July. Hence, the people of Kyoto can afford to fill their annual festival with dozens of main events and attractions. Since the Gion Festival 2024 is around the corner, you may want to plan your visit to coincide with events that interest you the most. Below is a preview of the main events and attractions expected at the 2024 iteration.

  • Kippuiri (July 1-5): The festival begins with the Kippuiri ritual, which involves keeping a spear in each of the participating neighborhoods.

  • Kujitorishiki (July 2): The order of the float procession will be determined via a lottery at Kyoto City Hall.

  • Shrine visits by chigo children (July 7 and July 13): Group of divine children, known as chigo, visit the shrine. Some of them are toddlers, but none should be older than nine. On July 7, a chigo group from Ayagasaboko will arrive for the ceremony. A group from Naginataboko will arrive in the morning of July 13, and another group from Kuse Shrine will arrive in the evening of the same day.

  • Welcoming and cleansing of mikoshi (July 10): The day starts with a lantern reception to welcome the portable shrine of Yasaka. The procession walks along a path lined with paper lanterns. In the evening, the mikoshi is carried to Shijo Ohashi Bridge, where the purification ritual takes place. The event will feature traditional musical performances.

  • Float building (July 10–13 and July 18–20): The building and decorating of floats for the upcoming procession of Yamaboko.

  • Yoiyama (July 14–16 and July 21-23): There are two three-day mini festivals held in the days preceding the two processions of Yamaboko floats on July 17 and 24. At night, stalls start selling street food, and the neighborhoods host parties for all age groups. The event is called Yoi-Yoi-Yoiyama three days before, Yoi-Yoiyama two days before, and Yoiyama on the eve of the main festival. Expect road closures on days 2 and 3.

  • Yamaboko Junko and mikoshi parade (July 17 and July 24): The first grand procession of floats and mikoshi is a bigger spectacle than the second one.

  • Cleansing of mikoshi (July 28): The mikoshi is purified with water from the Kamo River.

  • Closing service (July 31): The official closing service for Gion Matsuri will take place at Eki Shrine.

Exploring the Yamaboko Junko: The Float Procession

A portable shrine covered in red and gold embroidered cloth and attached to glowing paper lanterns moves through the crowded streets of Kyoto during the Gion Festival.

The Yamaboko Junko has always been the festival’s centerpiece event, where massive floats are paraded through the streets of Kyoto. These days, it’s split into two processions of 33 floats on July 17 and July 24, respectively. Every July 17 is the Saki Matsuri Junko (early festival), where hundreds of people carry 23 Yamaboko floats from the Yasaka Shrine, through Kyoto’s neighborhoods, to downtown Kyoto. July 24 is the Ato Matsuri Junko (later festival), where the remaining 10 Yamaboko floats are paraded in the same way, albeit with a smaller crowd.

There are 33 floats used in the procession: 23 Yama and 10 Yoko. They require a specialized form of carpentry to create. Each one is adorned with various beautiful ornaments. They also hold carvings and statues depicting scenes from Shinto and Buddhist history. Some of the current floats are not original versions, but restorations. This is because a few have been destroyed and lost over the centuries. 

The Yama floats are 6 m tall and weigh between 1,200 and 1,600 kg. They’re much smaller and lighter than the Hoko floats, which stand at 27 m and weigh approximately 11,000 kg. 50 or more men are required to pull Hoko floats.

The Role of Traditional Music and Dance

Gion Matsuri Festival, Hanagasa Junko Parade. Flower Umbrella Procession of float parade on the city street.

Traditional music and dance performances are integral to the Gion Matsuri. Not only do they liven up the events, but they also symbolize ancient customs and rites. You’ll find musicians in the floats playing flutes and beating large drums as they perform lively Gion Bayashi music. The traditional Bayashi is a Japanese musical art that’s closely linked to Shinto festivities. During the lantern reception on July 10, a group of kids showcase their skills in a series of dance and music performances at Kyoto City Hall and Yasaka Shrine. One of their main acts is the Sagi Odori, a.k.a. the Heron Dance, a traditional art that originated before 1542. You’ll also see them perform the Komachi Odori or Young Ladies' Dance, which celebrates the town’s beauty.

Gion Matsuri's Cultural Exhibitions

Famous summer event in Japan. Scene of Mikoshi (Portable shrine) transfer ceremony traveling from Yasaka Shrine to Shijo at night.

Besides the Yamaboko float parade and Gion Bayashi music, there are various cultural exhibitions held during the festival. A Yoiyama night offers one of the few opportunities you might get to see the inside of a private machiya house. The Kyoto-style machiya house is a wooden home with a narrow frontage, lattice doors, and a small Japanese courtyard garden called tsuboniwa. These houses are rarely ever open, but on Yoiyama nights, some of the machiya in Yamahoko-cho area showcase Byobu Matsuri (Folding Screen Festival). They remove their lattice doors and reveal family decorations and heirlooms.

Throughout the festival, you’ll see a lot of mitoshi. These portable shrines are said to carry the spirits of deities from one place to another. Traditional fashion is yet another cultural exhibition in the festival. Both participants and observers dress in colorful traditional attire like yukatas and happi coats.

Culinary Delights of the Gion Festival

If you find yourself in Kyoto in July, it would be heartbreaking not to indulge in the array of street food and traditional Kyoto cuisine available. Food and beer are a major part of the festivities of the month. We recommend the following dishes:

Yakitori: grilled and seasoned chicken on skewers. 

Bake yakitori at a Japanese yakitori restaurant

Taiyaki: fish-shaped cookies stuffed with a variety of fillings.

Taiyaki with traditional Japanese red bean paste

Okonomiyaki: pizza-like pancake filled with meat, seafood, vegetables, or a combination of all three.

chef use spatula to cut the done okonomiyaki in half on the iron plate

Chigo mochi: special Gion festival dish made from miso, rice, and ice.

Gion Chigo Mochi

Visiting any food stall should give you access to all of those foods and more, especially during Yoiyama nights.

The Spiritual Significance of Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri is Japan's most popular festival, held annually in downtown Kyoto

The Gion Festival is deeply rooted in ancient tradition, spirituality, community spirit, and religious beliefs. The floats and portable shrines contain the enshrined spirits of the deities. Parading them throughout the neighborhoods is a way of transferring blessings to every part of the community. Some of the mikoshi are carried to the sacred Kamo-gawa River and purified with water from the river. The Yasaka Shrine, where Gion Matsuri began, serves as the spiritual and religious focal point of the event. Most of the rituals of purification and pacification are done at the shrine and in the presence of festival goers. It and other local shrines connect the community and visitors spiritually to the event.

How to Get to Gion Matsuri

You can reach Kyoto easily from Japan via air, train, or highway bus. Once there, you may get to Gion Matsuri via bus, taxi, or subway. We urge you to secure accommodation before you arrive, as there’s a lot of demand for good hotels and resorts in July.

If you want to go to Kyoto from Tokyo by train, we recommend that you follow the  JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which connects the two cities. The Nozomi train will get you there in 2.5 hours.

Tokyo to Kyoto via highway bus takes 7-8 hours, with daytime and overnight options available. If you’d rather go by air, taking a flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport is the ideal choice. However, the closest airport to central Kyoto is Osaka's Itami Airport. You’ll need to take a one-hour bus to your destination when you arrive.


Unidentified Maiko girl (or Geiko lady) on parade of hanagasa in Gion Matsuri (Festival)

Attending the Gion Matsuri offers you the chance to see the spiritual side of a modern country like Japan. July 2024 isn’t far off, so we urge you to start making plans if you want to witness one of Kyoto's most illustrious cultural events of the year.

Do you want to experience Japan every month? Snacks and treats are the best way to go. When you get a Bokksu Snack Box Subscription, you will receive a monthly mystery box filled with authentic sweets and treats from Japan, including popular Kyoto specialty treats during the Gion Festival.

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