Are you hoping to attend the 2023 Gion Matsuri? Here’s a quick guide for how to best enjoy this year’s Gion festival. Read on for what’s new, some key highlights and how you can stay refreshed and inspired during Kyoto’s summer festival.
Help Prevent Covid at Gion Matsuri 2023
If all goes well, international visitors and Japan residents alike can enjoy Gion Matsuri 2023 as scheduled. Celebrate! Gion Matsuri 2022 took place, but with covid-related restrictions. Plus visa requirements were prohibitive for international visitors in 2022.
Covid-related controls on tourism have eased since then, but some may continue for Gion Festival 2023. Click here to be covid-prepared, stay safe, and keep others safe too.
Remember that Japan had a strong mask-wearing culture well before covid. More than protecting themselves, Japanese wear masks to prevent transmitting illness to others!
Gion Matsuri has always been an oral tradition. So the best of it resides in the minds of the festival elders, the generation most at risk from covid. So if you’re asked to wear a mask, show your respect for these valuable elders by honoring this masking practice to protect others. Locals will appreciate your sensitivity to their customs and culture.
Top Image: Ofune Boko musicians-in-training.
Middle: Shinkosai (see info below).
Bottom: Taka Yama musician greets a maiko apprentice geisha.
Six Tips for Enjoying the Gion Festival 2023
How might you best enjoy the Gion Festival in 2023? Here are some recommendations from my years visiting and researching the festival:
- A friend once told me, “The Gion Festival is as vast as the universe.” He’s right! In more than 25 years of fieldwork, I still haven’t seen and done everything. Accept that and enjoy whatever experiences you do have.
- Plan your explorations. If there’s something you want to prioritize, go for it! Or you might plan to wander around and enjoy whatever serendipitously arises.
- The Gion Matsuri is like a self-organizing system, always in flux. Schedules may change without notice, so go with the flow.
- Self-care is especially helpful during the Gion Matsuri. Japan’s rainy season is challenging on the body. Be prepared for rain, sun, heat, and crowds.
- Rest and enjoy refreshments regularly. People watch, treasure watch, and have fun! Eat something you’ve never eaten before.
- Enjoy the many free resources on this website as my way of paying forward the Gion festival community’s generosity over the years. My book, The Gion Festival: Exploring its Mysteries, is even better, and features the first definitive Gion Matsuri schedule in English. Download a gift chapter of the book here to check it out.
Next, lets look at what in particular we can look forward to during Gion Festival 2023:
Gion Matsuri 2023: What’s New?
The best-known aspects of the Gion Festival are divided in two parts: the larger Saki Matsuri: (“early festival” from July 10-17) and smaller-scale Ato Matsuri (“later festival” from July 18-24).
Here are highlights (what’s new and what’s always great to see), from each:
Saki Matsuri, July 12-17:
- Check out Kakkyo Yama’s beautiful new shrine, meeting place, and display area.
- Kakkyo Yama renovated its traditional kyomachiya building to better pay respects to its sacred statues, share its treasures, and welcome visitors.
- Traditionally, the July 17 and July 24 processions were the times for people to see the sacred statues and other treasures. Otherwise, display was not a Gion Matsuri priority.
- This is a pain point now that the Gion Festival receives so many visitors. Kakkyo Yama is the first yamaboko community to renovate its kyomachiya to meet these contemporary needs without charging visitors to enter. They may start a trend!
Ato Matsuri, July 20-24:
- Check out Taka Yama. It just re-launched in 2022, amazingly, earlier than scheduled. Its float was absent from the Gion Festival for almost 200 years!
- Kyoto’s urban core faces the same challenges as other major cities worldwide: climbing real estate prices and corresponding residential flight. The Taka Yama chonai community’s ability to rally is an awesome feat of community spirit! Consequently, you may notice a celebratory feeling around Taka Yama.
- Each year we’ll see Taka Yama maturing, adding activities and treasures to adorn its float. For example, in 2022 its frame displayed a beautiful wood finish. Will that be in the traditional black lacquer (a natural wood preservative) this year?
- Similarly, Ofune Boko re-launched in Ato Matsuri 2014, after a 150-year absence from the Gion Festival. It was the first float re-introduced since the 1970s.
- Every year it also has new activities and/or treasures.
- For example, the incredible dragon sculpture adorning its prow started out with its natural wood finish, and appeared gilded during Gion Matsuri 2022.
- This World Monuments Fund page on conserving and restoring kyomachiya features a video about Ofune Boko community’s journey to save and restore its traditional building!
- Every year it also has new activities and/or treasures.
The Taka Yama float was pulled down Sanjo street during the hikizome test pull in its debut year, 2022. Note the natural wood finish.
The main hall of Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine. During the Gion Matsuri and year-round, visitors come to pay their respects to the resident deities.
Gion Matsuri 2023: What’s Always Great?
- Walk around Yasaka Shrine, the patron shrine of the Gion Matsuri. This ancient shrine predates Kyoto City!
- Significantly, Yasaka Shrine is the residence of the Gion Festival deities.
- There are a wide variety of activities at Yasaka Shrine throughout the Gion Festival. During the shinkosai on the night of July 17, thousands of men carry the festival deities in portable mikoshi shrines from Yasaka Shrine through downtown Kyoto (see image at top of page). Then they carry them back again during the kankosai on the night of July 24.
- You can learn more about the shrine, its deities, and its resident dragon in a gift chapter from my book, The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries, and in my video presentation on Gion Matsuri dragons.
- The massive yoiyoiyama and yoiyama street parties on July 15 and 16, followed by the Yamaboko Junko floats‘ procession on July 17 are considered the peak events. They’re extraordinary, memorable experiences for the hundreds of thousands who attend.
- If crowds aren’t your thing, stroll around the perimeter of the yamaboko floats’ neighborhoods. These are peaceful and lovely, even during yoiyama, and have a stronger feeling of the local community.
- Subscribe to receive a free, interactive Gion Matsuri 2023 map.
- The yoiyama street party on the night of July 23 and the Yamaboko Junko floats‘ procession on July 24 are considered the peak events.
- The Ato Matsuri is smaller and more tranquil than the Saki Matsuri.
Refreshing Culture at the Gion Festival
Enjoy tea ceremony at Kikusui Boko July 13-16. This will be a memorable highlight of your Gion Matsuri 2023 visit.
- The downside is that they may be timed, and you may need to wait in line.
- But the upsides include: delicious mattcha green tea (highly caffeinated); a wagashi tea sweet; a beautiful souvenir dish; watching different kinds of tea ceremony—made by practitioners in yukata or kimono); Kikusui Boko and tea ceremony treasures on view; chairs, and air conditioning!
A Little Less Crowded
Looking for quieter and a little less crowded places to visit during the Gion Matsuri?
- Visit Daimaru Department Store, 1.5 blocks east of the central Shijo-Karasuma intersection. It has delightful Gion Matsuri displays. Check out:
- The main front windows. The Ofune Boko Boko dragon sculpture adorning its prow was on display here during Saki Matsuri 2022.
- The downstairs window displays, looking on to the underground passageway between the major Karasuma and Kawaramachi streets. There are usually fun Gion Matsuri-related displays of yukata and other traditional summer clothing, traditionally worn to the Gion Festival.
- Go inside to the ground floor entrance to enjoy the Gion Festival 2023 displays (and the air conditioning). The displays change regularly, but may include:
- Antique Gion Matsuri miniature floats—these were toys for the children of wealthy kimono merchants who sponsored the Gion Matsuri in years gone by.
- Quality Gion Festival 2023 souvenirs, such as very small floats as memorabilia, and fans (useful in the Gion Matsuri climate!).
Wishing you a healthy, marvelous Gion Matsuri 2023!
Access free interactive maps with locations and description of all 34 Gion Festival floats, plus procession routes!