Guide to Gion Matsuri and Tenjin Matsuri, Japan's Largest Celebrations of the Year
If traveling to Japan during July, mark your calendar for two of the grandest celebrations of the year: Gion Matsuri and Tenjin Matsuri. These two festivals take place in Kyoto and Osaka respectively, and are fantastic opportunities to experience firsthand Japan’s lively festival scene and deep historical roots.
Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri)
Dates: Entire month of July (main festival days on July 17th and 24th)
Festival Description: Gion Matsuri is Japan’s greatest annual celebration. This festival takes place over the entirety of the month of July, though its main parade days, Yamaboko Junko, fall on July 17th (Saki Matsuri) and 24th (Ato Matsuri). It is named after the Gion district and has a long history stretching back to the 9th century, when it started as part of a purification ritual to please the gods responsible for earthquakes, fires, and floods. Gion Matsuri Parade Float
Parade (July 17th [Saki Matsuri], 24th)
During parade days, floats are paraded in the area near Gion to the west of the Kamogawa River. While the floats have been repaired over the past centuries, the present floats are still very similar to the original ones used hundreds of years ago. The most special floats contain mikoshi, portable shrines. While most of the floats are wheeled around, these mikoshi are always man-carried, and never placed on the ground.
During the days before the parades, night stalls pop up in Kyoto’s downtown area between Sanjo and Kawaramachi stations, and the area is blocked off from normal traffic. These festival nights are called yoiyama (July 26, July 23), yoiyoiyama (July 15, July 22), and yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14, 21).
These stalls sell a wide variety of festival treats, such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki, taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean, cream, or other fillings), yakitori (skewered meat), candied fruit, among others. There are also many game stalls, with activities such as goldfish fishing (a typical Japanese festival game where you scoop fish with a paper net) and shooting games. Scattered among the streets in this area, you will also be able to see the completed floats. During yoiyama nights, private houses throughout Kyoto (primarily in the Shinmachi and Muromachi districts) open up to the pubic to showcase their valuable family heirlooms. This part of the festival is known as Byobu Matsuri (Folding Screen Festival), and is one of the rare times that these houses are opened up to outside visitors.
July 10-14th: Float Assembly
The previous festival’s 23 floats are assembled in the streets in the Kawaramachi and Gion districts.
July 14th-16th: Yoiyoi-yama, yoiyoi yama, yoiyama and Byobu Matsuri Folding Screen Display for Saki Matsuri
July 15th: Traditional Theatre Performance Dedication
Traditional Japanese theatre, such as harp, dance, and the Japanese lute, are performed at Yasaka Shrine from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
July 16th: Iwami Kagura
Iwami Kagura Shinto is performed at Yasaka Shrine starting at 6:30 p.m. This ancient court dance is a wonderful way to enjoy traditional Japanese music full of bells and flutes.
July 17th: Saki Matsuri Grand Parade
The largest parade of Gion Matsuri. The first float begins to move at 9:00 a.m., and when this float reaches Fuyacho Street, a straw rope is cute with a sword and heralds in the official start of the parade. The parade continues throughout the day, following a set path as noted in the picture below. At 6:30 p.m., the three mikoshi and their carriers convene in front of Yasaka Shrine. This processions occurs at a large scale, with more than 1,000 people taking part.
July 18th-21st: Float Assembly
The floats for Ato Matsuri are constructed.
July 21st-23rd: Yoiyoi-yama, yoiyoi yama, yoiyama for the Ato Matsuri; Byobu Matsuri Folding Screen Display for Ato Matsuri
July 24th: Ato Matsuri
The smaller, but still magnificent, of Kyoto’s two parades. The leading float begins to move at 9:30 a.m., and at 10:00 a.m., 10 large floats depart from Yasaka Shrine. At 5:00 p.m., the procession back towards the shrine begins, with the mikoshi returning to the shrine by 10:00-11:00 p.m. The shrine’s ceremony to welcome these spirits back to their home lasts until around 12:00 a.m. .
July 25th: Kyogen Play
At 11:00 a.m., kyogen (traditional comical theatre)is performed at Yasaka Shrine. Don’t miss out on this uniquely Japanese entertainment and be astounded by the wide range of kyogen actors’ voices.
July 31st: Nagoshi Summer Purification
The ceremony to celebrate the end of the festival begins at 10:00 a.m. at Yasaka Shrine. A large circular wreath weaved out of green rushes is hung in the shrine, and you can pass through it to purify your spirit and stave off illness for the next year.
What to Wear: For an authentic experience, make sure to rent yukata (summer kimono). Shops that rent these yukata near the Gion district include, Yumeyakata.
Best Spots for Viewing:
Save—Arrive to the festival at least an hour early to grab a spot close to the end of the street (portable stools or tarp to sit on are huge pluses).
Splurge—Seats are available on Oike Street for ¥3180, or ¥4500 for a seat with English guidance. These tickets can be bought at several information centers in the area, including the Kyoto Tourist Information Center (Kyoto Station) and the Kawaramachi Sanjo Tourist Information Center.
- The festival’s current form stems from changes made in the 16th century, when the shogunate placed a ban on all religious events. Though the religious rituals were done away with, the procession still continued on the behest of the Japanese people. Over time, floats, dances, comedic plays, artwork, and dances were added to the Gion Matsuri.
- Many floats have been handed down through merchant families and craft guilds for centuries. A such, this festival became a way for them to show off their wealth. Over time, the floats become so big that wheels had to be added.
Dates: July 24th-25th
Festival Description: Tenjin Matsuri is the greatest festival in Osaka, with a history stretching back more than a thousand years. Literally called “Festival of the Gods”, Tenjin Matsuri is a celebration for Sugawara Michizane, the god of scholarship. Main Attractions:
Parade The main parade day is on July 25th, when more than 3,000 celebrants carry palanquins with mikoshi (portable shrines). The deity Sugawara Michizane is brought out of Tenmangu Shrine and paraded throughout Osaka before being brought back at night.
Night Festivities On July 25th at night, torch-lit boats travel down the river, some of them carrying portable shrines. A beautiful display of fireworks also lights up the river area.
July 24th: Tenjin Matsuri’s kickoff
The mikoshi leaves Tenmangu Shrine at 7:45 a.m., accompanied by 200 retainers, including the Shindo (holy child). At 8:50 a.m., the sacred halberd is thrown into the river as part of a prayer for peace in the city, and the festival officially starts. At 4:00 p.m. there is a drum performance, and at 6:30 p.m. a lion dance, in the shrine’s precincts.
July 25th: Tenjin Matsuri’s Main Parade Day
The procession departs at 3:30 p.m. from the temple and parades towards the river. At 6:00 p.m., the transfer from the land to the river procession begins and the first squadron departs from the dock. The Gohoren boat carrying the deity departs from the Tenjimbashi Bridge to go up the Okawa river, while the Hohai (worshippers) boats go down the river from Hishobashi Bridge to meet the deity.
The boats also display traditional Japanese entertainment, such as kagura, a Shinto traditional dance. At 10:00 p.m. the procession returns to Tenmangu Shrine with much fanfare.
Make sure not to miss the Tenjin Matsuri Festival Dedication Fireworks, when more than 5,000 fireworks are set off, which start at 7 p.m. and last until 9 p.m..
Best Spots for Viewing:
Save—Arrive to the festival at least an hour early to grab a spot on the streets the procession will pass through. For the night procession, staking out spots on the many bridges crossing over the Okawa river is a popular choice.
Splurge—Viewing seats for both the land and river processions are available from JTB corporation. The land procession viewing seat at Naniwabashi is a set ¥5,000, while the river processions seats’ prices vary from ¥6,000 to ¥18,000 depending on the seat’s location.
- To feel the full festival spirit, make sure to learn Osaka Jime before you go! While this gesture is normally done at economic conventions and at the stock exchange in the Kansai region, it also takes place every time a boat passes during the night procession of Tenjin Matsuri.
Osaka Jime: Say “Uchima-sho”, clap twice, say “mohitotsu-se”, clap twice, then say “iwote sando”, and celebrate with three more claps!
- A significant number of the boats joining the night procession are sponsored by corporations, so you may see large floats advertising products such as Asahi beer scattered among the more traditional boats.
- Food and drinks can be found at food stalls set up along the riverbanks around Tenjin Matsuri's night procession.