The weather is currently bouncing back and forth between rainy and sunny, but regardless is relentlessly humid. People entering shops do so with the seasonal greeting of, “It’s hot, isn’t it?” Summer has come to Japan, just as sticky as it is every year.
About a thousand years ago, people figured that maybe having some festivals would help take everyone’s minds off of the heat. One such festival, the Gion Matsuri, is still around to this day. (Disclaimer: Gion Matsuri can be linked as far back as the late 800s, but became an actual annual thing starting around 970 CE.)
You can expect to see plenty of neat structures lining the main streets of Kyoto, some of which you might even be able to enter to get a better look at things. These are called Yamaboko floats. The standard word for floats in Japanese is mikoshi （神輿）, but each of the structures you’ll see during the festival in Kyoto have their own names and histories.
Being the biggest festival in Kyoto, lasting the entire month of July, this naturally draws crazy amounts of crowds. So, if you want to make the most of it, what’s a person to do?
First, get your hands on a calendar. The floats are up and running as of now for you to take pictures and read all about, but the actual events are happening on very specific days. The float parade, or the Yamaboko Junko, will happen on two days: the 17th and the 24th. Leading up to the former are a series of days called yoiyama, yoiyoiyama, etc. These are great chances to wander the streets of Kyoto and take in the atmosphere of the festival at large.
Get dressed for the occasion! (Optional.) Some people like to get in the spirit of things, and that includes dressing up in yukata, wooden sandals, the whole bit. Me, I’m not a fan of it, but if that’s your thing go out and find yourself something awesome to wear. Department stores all over Kyoto City are selling entire yukata sets (the yukata itself, obi, geta, yada yada) for your convenience.
Figured out where you’re going and what you want to see? Find some food and drink! It is hot in Kyoto City, and the crowds are only going to make it worse. Even if the heat ruins your appetite, get some food in you and make sure you have water on you at all times while wandering around. I recommend going for cool treats like the chilled cucumbers or shaved ice (kakigori).
Be prepared to wait. When I say it’s crowded, I mean you might move a few meters in ten minutes. People are going to mill and take pictures and hover around the food stands. There will be signs and police officers showing you which way to go, where you can and cannot cross the street, and how to get onto a quieter road if you’re done with the festival.
Listen to instructions. Don’t be that person who ignores all directions and tries to fight against the crowds. You will lose, and you will make yourself out to be a jerk to all and sundry in the meanwhile. Keep an eye and ear out, and if you’re not sure what’s going on ask around for someone who speaks your native language.
Breathe. If the crowds get to be too much for you, step into a nearby department store, convenience store, or cafe depending on what time you’re wandering around. Take a breather in the A/C, get yourself a cold drink, and mentally recharge before you plunge back out into the craziness that is Gion Festival.
Go out, have fun, and stay safe, Gion-goers!