Gion Festival 101: the ultimate Guide

Get our insider recommendations on where to eat in Kyoto during the festivities, including some real hidden gems. 

Don't Miss the Gion Festival

It's a must-see and a Foodie-fest of a Festival

Kyoto is food mad anyway, but through the Gion Festival, July 1st to 31st, it goes truly Foodie crazy. Those 25+ meter tall festival floats are pretty cool too! Make sure you come hungry.

UPDATE (July 25th, 2018): Need a little (more) craziness in your life? From 11 am this morning, master Kyogen performer Shigeyama Chusaburo performs 'crazy Noh' at Yasaka Jinja Shrine. It'll be fun. This from his website:

Yoshinobu Shigeyama is the son of Chuzaburo Shigeyama. Born in 1982, he started performing Kyogen professionally at the age of four, like his father. Someday he will become the fifth-generation Chuzaburo Shigeyama. In 1986, at the age of 4 he performed『Iroha』〈Chuzaburo Kyogenkai〉at National Noh Theatre. This was his first performance as a professional. In 1998, at the age of 16, the performed『Tsurigitune-Fox Trapping-』〈Chuzaburo Kyogenkai〉in 4 cities. In 2005, he graduated from Kyoto University of Art and Design, with a degree in Theatre of Performing Arts

In 2007, at the age of 25 he performed『Hanago』〈Chuzaburo Kyogenkai〉in 4 cities.
He is very active and works internationally in both Europe and Asia. He has toured in
U.S.A.(1996,2002); Australia(2001); Hungary(2007); Germany and Austria (2009); France(2010). He also performs ‘Sign Language Kyogen’ 

UPDATE (July 24th, 2018): Today's parade is going ahead, despite the heat. If you are heading to central Kyoto today, bear in mind that the city centre streets will be closed to vehicular traffic (although Karasuma street North-South will be open). Best arrive by subway train or Hankyu railway. Bring water, sunscreen and a hat. It's going to be 38 degrees Celsius. Here are the details:

Ato Matsuri (1)

UPDATE (July 23rd, 2018): in an unprecedented move, tomorrow's July 24th Gion Festival Hanagasa Parade has been CANCELLED due to fears of heatstroke. Today Japan recorded its highest temperature, 42 degrees Celsius/107.6 degrees Fahrenheit, in Kumagawa, Saitama prefecture. With similar temperatures being recorded in Kyoto, the organizers have decided that it is too dangerous for participants and spectators alike to go ahead with the parade. At time of writing the Atomatsuri Yamaboko Jungyo is still going ahead.

UPDATE (July 21st, 2018): The heatwave gripping Japan shows no signs of abating, with temperatures set to stay around the 38 °C / 100.4 °F). The AccuWeather website reports that  sweltering humidity will push AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperatures to between 38 and 43 C (100 and 110 F) during the midday and afternoon hours. make sure to drink plenty of water! 

Tuesday July 24th sees the last of the major Gion Festival events, a procession of ten hoko floats in what is known as the Ato Matsuri Yamaboko Jungyo. It is essentially the reverse of the July 17th route, starting at Oike-Karasuma at 9.30am and finishing around 11.20 at Shijo-Karasuma. The smaller Hanagasa parade, with a mikoshi portable shrine pulled by children, leaves Yasaka Jinja Shrine at 10 am, heads up Teramachi arcade, along Oike, then back down Kawaramachi and back to Yasaka Jinja Shrine around noon.  

Gion Festival July 24th Parade Route

 

UPDATE (July 16th, 2018): The weather for tomorrow's Yamaboko Junko Parade is forecast to be partly cloudy & sunny, and hot, with 9am temperatures already up at 32 °C / 89.6 °F). Make sure to wear a hat, or use sunscreen, or both, as the UV is pretty strong at level 5, and drink lots of liquids. Humidity is at 62%. The parade starts at 9am (final Hoko leaving at 11am), heads East along Shijo-dori, before turning North up Kawaramachi. At Kawaramachi-Oike the floats turn West again, and head along Oike-dori, past Karasuma-Oike station, and stop at Shinmachi-dori South of Oike. By the time proceedings wind up around 13.15pm, temperatures will have hit 36 °C / 96.8°F.

Sounds from Gion Festival

 

Here's a rough schematic of the route: Hoko Route JFA

 

What is it?

Part religious observance, part display of local pride and part summer street festival, the Gion Festival is a must-see for anyone visiting the country in July. Especially if you love to eat!

Its nickname is the Hamo Matsuri - the Pike Conger Festival - for the huge amounts of that delicacy consumed over its duration. It began as a celebration worshiping the yasaka Shrine deities for protecting the city from a Plague that was ravishing the country. 

Fierce Hamo s-1 Gion Kyoto

 

Today it is an excuse for the traditional old Kyoto merchants houses to open their doors to show of family heirlooms, and for young and old alike to stroll the streets in yukata summer kimono, eating and drinking at the street stalls that fill the area around Karasuma-Shijo.  It's also a very popular 'date spot', and of course, tourist mecca.

Its main stars are the 32 festival floats, the largest- named yama or 'mountain', of which there are 9, and 23 smaller hoko 'floats'. The largest weigh up to 25 tons, and tower over 20 meters in height. They are pulled through the Kyoto streets solely using manpower. Watching them turn one through 180 degrees using a mixture of brute force and clever use of mallets and wooden chocks is quite a sight. 

Gion-Banner-960x430

 

When is it?

The festival in its entirety runs from July 1st to July 31st, but the main action – and the massive influx of tourists – takes place between July 14th and July 22nd. Foodies look out for the street festivities along Shijo-dori from dusk until 10 pm on the evenings of July 14th, 15th, & 16th, and again on the 21st, 22nd & 23rd.

Hachimansan Song

The star daytime attractions are two processions of the floats: the Yamaboko Junko parade on July 17th from 9 am to 11.30 am; and the Ato Matsuri Junko procession on July 24th, from 9 am to 11.30 am.

What time of day do festivities occur?

Many of the ancient family homes in central Kyoto open their doors for ‘treasure viewing’ throughout the day, but it is generally in the evening that the partying – and much eating and drinking, take place. The two big parades are from 9 am to 11.30 am. 

Gion Festival-matsuri-parade-kyoto-yamabokoWhere can I see the floats and street parties?

Most of the action takes place in the streets around Shijo-Karasuma, near Shijo Station (subway line) and Karasuma Station (Keihan line, map here), particularly to the North of Shijo-dori street. The partying extends further east, towards Kawatamachi-dori, and of course through the Gion District up to the festival's patron shrine, Yasaka Jinja shrine. The crowds leading to Yasaka Jinja on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd in particular are almost biblical in proportion. See our temporary map here below (spiffy version following very soon. Stay tuned). 

Temporary Gion Map (1)

xxxx The area in green denotes where you'll find most of the celebrations and houses opening their doors to reveal their treasures. The hoko festival floats are stationed on the streets marked with the symbol.

Map Key These are some our favorite restaurants and bars in the vicinity of the Gion Festival, across all genres. Check out: 1. Kyohei Ramen 2. Kerala 3. Tagoto Honten. 4. The Hub 5. Pig & Whistle 6. AWOMB sushi 7. Men Bisutoro Nakano 8. Nishiki Market 9. Rockin' Bat ING 10. Pop-up street stalls 11. Kushihachi 12. Manpuku. 13. Craft Man 14.  (pictured below) 15. Takashimaya Depot Store & Depachika Food Floor/ Tempura 16. Kikunoi Roan. 17. Gion Okumura

Retro-Sutando-stand^kyoto-izakaya

What’s the weather like?

Hot, wet, or both. The basic rule of thumb is that the earlier you visit the Gion Festival, the more likely it is to rain. Historically the tsuyu 'rainy season' was considered to end on the final day of the Festival, but these days that is rarely the case. Yet it is unpredictable.

This year, 2018, was one of extremes. Kyoto was hit by seasonal rains, a huge typhoon, and flooding up to July 9th. At time of writing, however, the rainy season is 'officially over', and temperatures and humidity are rising under clear blue skies. Gion 2018 is going to be a hot one. 

Gion Festivakl Street Food Manju 1

The Gion Festival Menu 

What is there to eat and drink?

At any summer festival or matsuri in Japan, the street vendors, known as tekiya, are out in force selling street food, and thousands gallons of chilled beer and iced drinks.  The Gion Festival is no exception. The traditional festival goodies are the brightly colored, sugary ice confections known as kaki-gori, and fried morsels such as yakitori fried chicken and kushiyaki morsels on skewers, and the perennially popular okonomiyaki savory pancakes. You will probably find grilled ayu sweetfish too, similar to those pictured here. 

Ayu square (1)

 

These days the stalls sell all manner of weird and wonderful goodies - with French, Italian, Indian, kebabs, vegan, ramen noodles and even sushi and sashimi well represented. Of course, you can find hamo pike conger. Try it inexpensively, at Uoriki in Nishiki arcade (pictured immediately below). This year (2018) stalls selling highball cocktails, sausage vendors and purveyors of Hawaian food seem to be popular. There's a guy selling Turkish ice-cream in full Turkish costume too!

Hamo Tempura_0128-1

 

Favorites & Some Hidden Gems

Naturally, the great restaurants, cafes, washoku specialists and noodle joints that fill Kyoto year-round remain open. Check out our reviews of some of the finest (including little known secrets like Kyohei, Manpuku & Sutando, and Ramen-French Nakano),  We strongly recommend the following:

Kyohei RamenManpuku & Eitaro (ramen noodles), Kyogoku Sutando (Izakaya), Biotei, Mumokuteki, & Gomacro Salon (vegan), Men Bisutoro Nakano (ramen/French fusion: Map here), Soba Roujina & Tagoto Honten (buckwheat soba), Gion Okumura (Kyoryori-French: Map here), Nishikoji (Market-Street Food map here), and more. For sake check out JAM Hostel and Bar (Kawabata-Shijo: Map here) and for late night beers and rock music Rockin' Bar ING (Kiyamachi: Map here).  

Don't forget the possibilities offered by the big hotels either. If you can get a reservation - and they are hard to come by - check out the fabulous tempura at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto's Tempura Mizuki. Check out our in-depth review and video interview here.

Stand-Girls-WA-1024x564

Where To Find the Best Food During the Festival


Which districts are best? 

This depends on your feelings about crowds. Either brave them, and dive straight in and walk the streets around Shijo-Karasuma, or head for the comparative peace of slightly less feverish locales towards Oike and Kawaramach-Sanjo. The high class ryotei restaurants with their kaiseki cuisine are largely found in the Gion & Higashiyama districts. 

Please to Not Eat Nishiki Market kyoto

 

The bar and restaurant quarters of Kiyamachi and Ponto-cho are good options, but busy for sure. One great way to avoid the heat is to head to the Takashimaya (map here) and Daimaru (map here) department stores, and their huge basement depachika food floors that offer eat-in or take-out options. At night, head to their rooftop beer gardens to watch Kyoto at play over ice-cold beers. 

Pontocho-Kyoto-Crop

For civilized relaxation, head to the western bank of the Kamogawa River, to dine at a kawadoko or yuka (pictured above). These are the platforms set out over the river by many of the city's finest old restaurants. Reservations are essential. See the recommendations for the best ones here by Kyoto Green Tea Master, Randy Channell Soei.. Btw, If you want to check out green tea during the festival make sure to read our Green Tea Primer article for the complete lowdown.

Good news is that everywhere in Central Kyoto is within walking distance, and the subways and trains, though crowded, run efficiently and on time. Forget surface road transport during the Gion Festival!

How much cash do I need to prepare? 

Not too much more than at any other time. Many establishments do put up their prices during the Festival, but as ever it is possible to eat well and fairly inexpensively. If you add 15% to your normal daily budget it should cover all eventualities. Watching the Gion Festival parades is free, except for the reserved seating area on Oike-dori street, in front of Kyoto City Hall.

Do I need to Book in Advance?

Absolutely, if you want a comfortable sit-down dinner in a decent restaurant. Quite a bit in advance. The city's hotels and restaurants are well over capacity during the festival, but of course the beauty of the yatai street-stalls and pop-ups is that they are reservation-free. Just show up. It may be worth dining out of the center of town - further north at Ranmaru in Shogoin, Okakita in Okazaki, and Ryozanpaku in Hyakumanben are all excellent. 

Gion festival Street Food Sausages

What If I Just Want a Beer & A Curry?

Don't Panic! No Problem at All! Kyoto doesn't limit its Food Life to Japanese Stuff

Some local favorites include:

  • Indian Food: lots of good places, but perennial favorites are Ashoka (Teramachi: Map here), Kerala (Sanjo: Map here); & Mughal (Kiyamachi-Oike: Map here).
  • English & Irish Pubs: Pig & Whistle (Sanjo Keihan: Map here); The Hub (Kiyamachi-Sanjo: Map here; Karasuma-Shijo: Map here); The Man in the Moon (Gion: Map here; Karasuma-Bukkoji: Map here).
  • Halal, Indian & Persian Cuisine at Arash's Kitchen (Shogoin: Map here).
  • Craft Beer Fans: check out Craft man (Karasuma-Ayanokoji: Map here), Beer Komachi (Furukawa Shotengai arcade: Map here), & Ginza Lion Beer Hall (Karasuma-Shijo: Map here).
John F. Ashburne

John F. Ashburne

Editor-in-Chief Foodies Go Local