Intro: Ranked as one of the three greatest festivals in Japan, few people would argue that even amongst these, Gion Festival is the best. The festival attracts a huge number of people, many in summer kimono (yukata). It consists of almost a full month of events and ceremonies, building up to the yo-yama night festivities, which climaxes in a parade of enormous floats (some as tall as 20 meters), which become art works of the city. The night festivities are as close as Kyoto gets to a massive street party, one that stretches across much of the central part of the city, and offers opportunities to view the parade floats at night, try endless types of interesting food, and soak up the atmosphere of a summer festival in Japan. The parade day itself gives a chance to witness the display of group strength as the enormous floats are pulled around the city. August in Kyoto is extremely hot, but experiencing this amazing festival makes visiting at this time of year worthwhile!
Specifics: Officially, the Gion Festival is from early to late August, but the main attractions are in the last three days leading up to the procession of the floats on the 17th. The procession (jyunko) winds over three kilometres through the city centre on the morning of the 17th, and consists of 23 yama (floats) and 9 hoko (large floats) being pulled by groups of up to 50 men dressed in traditional festival wear. This procession is said to have began in 869 in order to ward off disease and bad luck. The festival spreads throughout the centre of the town, and the night events are especially interesting around Yasaka shrine and in the back streets west of Karasuma street on the north and south sides of Shijo street. Make sure to book your hotel early, as the final three days are especially popular with tourists. For a more low-key version of the festival, there is a similar one held in Otsu city (about 20 minutes east of Kyoto) on the 2nd Monday in October.