Kyoto Festivals – A Year-Round Guide
There are dozens of fantastic Kyoto festivals throughout the year, the only trouble is choosing the one for you. Our Kyoto festival guide should help you out.
Kyoto, Japan’s thousand-year capital, admired for its historic temples, UNESCO World Heritage sites and fantastic food is a tourist hotspot all year round. Especially so when one of the city’s many festivals is underway. These festivals promise a unique glimpse into Kyoto’s rich history and cultural life, as well as the chance to party with the locals.
Below, discover a guide to all of Kyoto’s significant festivals, from the age old to the contemporary, to help you find the right one for you.
Kyoto Spring Festivals (March, April, May)
Kyoto Cherry Blossom Festivals
The cherry blossom festival, or hanami, is celebrated throughout Kyoto each year. There are many wonderful spots to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) and relax in their shade, the only trouble is picking one.
Using our guide, however, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem: The 13 Best Kyoto Cherry Blossom Viewing Spots.
When: Late Mar - Mid-Apr
Kyoto Light Festival (Hanatouro)
Over several days, the whole district of Higashiyama is illuminated by thousands of lanterns, all lighting the way to the area’s temples and shrines. Along the way, street performances and installations enchant pedestrians and there’s a whole load of food stalls selling all manner of traditional treats. A highlight that never fails to amaze visitors is the giant illuminated paper lantern in the shape of a mythical four-headed snake.
If you miss the festival in March, you’re in luck, come December the foothills of Arashiyama are lit up for the second annual festival. The sight of Togetsukyo Bridge and the bamboo forest glowing against the winter night is sure to live long in the memory.
When: March 3 - March 12 (18:00 - 21:30) Where: Between Shoren-in and Kiyomizu-dera Access: Higashiyama Station (10-minute walk) Website: Hanatouro
Kyoto Aoi Matsuri
Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri is one of Kyoto’s three largest festivals, alongside Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. The event dates back all the way to 539, when it was first used to try and appease the gods after floods and disease struck the city. Many of the original features of the festival remain, including the parade of mounted archers.
The centrepiece of the Aoi Matsuri is a grand parade from the Imperial Palace to Shimogamo Shrine. It is made up of 600 participants, all adorned with the aoi flowers which give the festival its name. When the procession arrives at Shimogamo Shrine the main ritual takes place. This involves the choosing of the Saio-Dai Princess—a figure intended to represent the emperor. Today, the princess is played by a local woman dressed in traditional silk garments, or junihitoe. After this, the procession heads to Kamigamo Shrine headed by the Imperial Messanger on horseback and the ritual is brought to a close. As a window into Kyoto’s past, the festival is difficult to top.
When: May 15, 10:30 - 15:30 Where: 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 602-0881 Access: Imadegawa Station (5-minute walk)
Kyoto Mifune Matsuri
Next, we take to the water. Mifune Matsuri (mifune, meaning “three boats” in Japanese) is a festival that replicates the ceremony once performed for the emperor when he was received for visits. Beginning at Kurumazaki Shrine, the action soon heads over Togetsukyo Bridge and down to the river where upwards of 20 boats, all traditionally decorated and carrying dancers and performers of all kinds, slowly make their way downstream, delighting the onlookers who line the banks as they go. There is a stong focus on historical accuracy so don’t expect too much of a festival atmosphere, though it can still be a lot of fun regardless.
When: 3rd Sunday of May, 12:00 - 16:00 Where: Togetsukyo Bridge Access: Arashiyama Station (4-minute walk) Website: Mifune Matsuri
Kyoto Plum Blossom Festival
The cherry blossom festival may be the more famous, but the Japanese love ume (plum blossoms) just as much. As they bloom in late winter, Kyoto is one of the best places in the country to see them. To the untrained eye, ume may look pretty similar to cherry blossoms, but look closely and you’ll notice that their split petals and distinctive scent mark them out as unique.
Head over to Jonangu Shrine to see 150 plum trees and 300 camellia trees all in one place. The shrine’s gardens are large and beautifully landscaped though there is a fee for entry: 600 yen for adults and 400 yen for children.
When: Late Feb - Late Mar Where: Jonangu Shrine Access: Takeda Station (15-minute walk) Website: Jonangu
Plum Blossom Festival at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Another great spot for plum blossom viewing is Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. On February 25th, you can witness an outdoor tea ceremony under the gorgeous plum blossom trees. Leave all your cares behind with a cup of Japanese matcha.
When: Feb 25 Where: Kitano Tenmangu Shrine Access: Kitanohakubaicho Station (10-minute walk)
Kyoto Miyako Odori
When in 1869 Japan’s capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, some were left pretty disgruntled. Their response? A festival, of course. After a tea ceremony, Miyako Odori’s main event is a geikos (geisha) dance performance. For anyone interested in classical Japanese culture, the performance is a must.
Although usually held at the Kyoto Kaburenjo Theater, this year (2017) it will move to the University’s Art Theater Shunjuza. There are four shows a day throughout April. You can save some money by sitting on unreserved tatami mats.
When: Apr 1 - Apr 30 Where: Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza Access: Chayama Station (10-minute walk) Website: Miyako Odori
Kyoto Indie Game Festival (BitSummit)
Kyoto’s BitSummit is a fair for Japan’s independent game developers to show off their latest work. The festival is in its fifth year and gets bigger every year, clearly, it’s here to stay.
Anyone can attend and browse the stalls, try out the games and soak up the atmosphere, though the awards ceremony that concludes the event is invite only. General admission is 2,000 yen but students get a 50% discount. The event is also live streamed if you can’t make it to Kyoto.
When: May 20 - May 21 (10:00 - 17:00) Where: Miyakomesse, Kyoto 1F Exhibition Hall No.2 Access: Higashiyama Station (10-minute walk) Website: BitSummit
Kyoto Summer Festivals (June, July, August)
Kyoto Gion Matsuri
Gion Matsuri is the largest and most hotly anticipated festival in Kyoto, if not Japan. It all began in the 9th century as a way to appease the gods, hence the portable shrines that are carried along the streets. Over time, the festival became overseen by the city’s wealthy class of merchants, an arrangement still in place today.
The festival’s main event is the yamaboko, or parade of floats. There are dozens of floats, each as ornately decorated and staggeringly impressive as the last. Traditional musicians and performers accompany the parade, helping create the buoyant atmosphere the event is famed for. During Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s streets are overrun by revellers, many dressed in traditional yukata and all making the most of the occasion. Food and drink stalls also pop up all over, providing the chance to sample some of the city’s finest festival delicacies.
When: Jul 1 - Jul 31, Yamaboko parade on Jul 17 & Jul 24 (9:00 - 11:30) Where: Karasuma-dori, Shijo-dori, Kawaramachi-dori, Oike-dori (four main streets) Access: Karasuma Station, Kawaramachi Station Website: Unofficial Gion Festival Website
Kyoto Obon Festival
Buddhism stresses the importance of honouring your ancestors and remembering them for all they did. This is the express aim of Obon, a summer festival where the departed are welcomed back into the world of the living. Many people choose to return to their home towns and cities during this time, though Kyoto remains a great place to experience the event. Follow the sound of Taiko drums and the glow of the lanterns and you’ll soon discover what it’s all about.
When: Aug 13 - Aug 15 Where: All around Kyoto
Kyoto Daimonji Festival
In Kyoto, the Obon Festival peaks with daimonji, a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.
To guide the deceased back to the spirit world, fires are lit in cities across the country. Kyoto, however, takes this to the next level. Five giant bonfires are lit on the mountains that surround the city, each in the shape of a different Chinese character. The first to be lit and the most impressive is 大 (dai) which means “great” or “large.” The fires are visible from everywhere in the city and always create a fantastic, mystical atmosphere.
When: Aug 16 (20:00) Where: Kamogawa riverbank Access: Jingu-Marutamachi Station (2-minute walk)
Gojozaka Pottery Festival
At the beginning of the Obon Festival, Gojo Street turns into a haven for pottery fans. This unusual festival is a showcase for local potters who usually honour the occasion by selling their wares at discounted prices. From the traditional to the modern, there’s something for all and even the odd pottery workshop to get involved in.
When: Aug 7 - Aug 10 (9:00 - 22:00) Where: Gojo Street, between Kamo River and Higashi-oji Street Access: Kyomizu-Gojo Station Website: Gojozaka Pottery Festival
Kyoto Tanabata Festival
The Tanabata Festival honours Hikoboshi (Altair star) and Orihime (Vega star), two star-crossed lovers forbidden to meet, except on one night a year. The legend is celebrated across Japan, including in Kyoto.
As part of the festival, it is customary to write a wish on a piece of paper and hang it on a bamboo tree. Do this anywhere in the city and then head to the Milky Way of Light on Horikawa Street. Blue LED lights reproduce the Milky Way to create a magical spectacle. Arrive early to avoid the crowds.
When: Aug 6 - Aug 12 (19:00 - 21:30) Where: Horikawa Street Access: Nijojo-mae Station Website: Kyoto Tanabata
Kyoto Autumn Festivals (September, October, November)
Kyoto Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages)
Also known as the Festival of the Ages, this summer festival is designed to remember Kyoto’s important place in the history of Japan. The main event is a parade featuring locals dressed in historical garments from different periods in the city’s history which runs between the Imperial Palace and Heian Shrine. Look out for women in junihitoe, an elaborate kimono reserved for special occasions such as this.
When: Oct 22 (12:00 - 14:30) Where: Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine Access: Higashiyama Station for the Heian Shrine (15-minute walk)
Kyoto Fire Festival (Kurama no Hi Matsuri)
The Kyoto Fire Festival takes place in the woods of Kurama village, a little out of the city but well worth the excursion. Huge pine torches are lit and carried through the streets, reenacting the 10th-century relocation of Yuki Jinja Shrine from Kyoto to Kurama. The fire ceremony is meant to welcome the kami (Japanese gods) to their new home.
When: Oct 22 (18:00) Where: Kurama, Yuki Jinja Shrine Access: Kurama Station (9-minute walk)
Kyoto Chrysanthemum Festival (Kiku Matsuri)
You may have heard the seat of the emperor referred to as the “chrysanthemum throne”—indeed, the chrysanthemum (kiku in Japanese) is a symbol for the whole of the imperial family. During the Chrysanthemum Festival, the Botanical Garden of Kyoto shows off its wonderful chrysanthemums to the public, an event that always proves popular.
When: Oct 20 - Nov 15 (9:00 - 17:00) Where: Kyoto Botanical Garden Access: Kitayama Station (5-minute walk) Website: Official Website
Kyoto Comb Festival (Kushi Matsuri)
An unusual festival which celebrates women’s hairstyles, combs and hairpins. Following a short procession down Higashi-oji Street, the participants head to Yasui Konpiragu Shrine for a ceremony. Check it out, particularly if you’re after some inspiration for a new haircut!
When: 4th Monday of Sep (starts 13:00) Where: Yasui Konpiragu Shrine Access: Gion-Shijo Station (10-minute walk) Website: Kushi Matsuri
Kyoto International Film and Arts Festival (KIFF)
Now in its fourth year, the Kyoto International Film and Arts Festival is quickly becoming one of Japan’s hottest cultural events. The program includes film showings and art installations of all kinds and attracts filmmakers and artists from across the globe. Though not all, some films are shown with English subtitles for those without Japanese ability. Check the schedule for more details.
When: Oct 12 - Oct 15 (not confirmed yet) Where: Various cinemas and museums, check website for details Website: KIFF
Kyoto Experiment Festival
Kyoto Experiment is a performing arts festival held in autumn each year at the newly rebuilt ROHM Theather. Come marvel at dance and theatre performances from local and international artists alike. Each year, the festival is centred around a theme, which in the past have included “language and logic” and “art expressed through bodies.” Whatever the theme, the festival is always an exciting one.
When: Oct 14 - Nov 5 Where: ROHM Theater Kyoto Access: Higashiyama Station (9-minute walk) Website: Kyoto Experiment
Kyoto Winter Festivals (December, January, February)
Kyoto Radish Festival (Daikon Matsuri)
The Sanpoji Temple just north of Kyoto holds an annual festival dedicated to white radish. Eating radish is said to bring health and happiness, a theory you can test out there and then with some free samples.
When: Oct 9 - Oct 10 Where: Sanpoji Temple Access: Narutakihonmachi Bus Stop (15-minute walk)
Shogatsu (New Years)
New Years in Japan is a big deal. In Kyoto, houses are decorated all around town and osechi-ryori (Japanese New Year dishes) are prepared for the occasion.
On New Year’s Eve itself, there are traditional ceremonies such as the New Year’s Bell Ringing (see below) and temples and shrines are swamped with visitors praying for a good year. The first shrine visit of the year is referred to as hatsu-mode and is honoured by almost everybody. If you don’t fancy it, head to an izakaya (Japanese bar) or bar for a bonekai drinking party instead.
When: Dec 31 - Jan 3 Where: All around Kyoto
Joya-no-Kane (Sacred New Year’s Bell Ringing)
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the ceremonial bells at temples across the land are rung 108 times, each chime representing a human desire to be banished. At some temples you’ll even be able to have a go at ringing yourself.
The ceremony at Chion-in Temple is perhaps the most impressive. It takes the strength of 17 to ring the 70-ton bell, the biggest in Japan.
When: Dec 31 (00:00) Where: Chion-in Temple Access: Higashiyama Station (10-minute walk) Website: Official Website
The Setsubun Festival marks the passing of winter and the beginning of spring. Although it’s not an official holiday, it’s celebrated widely. One way of doing this is by eating a soy bean for each year of your life. Soy beans are also used to cast out oni (demons) at shrines. This is done by throwing them wildly at the (invisible) spirits. To give you something to aim at, some shrines employ brave volunteers to dress up as demons and parade around. A thankless task indeed! Yoshida Shrine is one place to experience this, where you’ll also find an array of food stands and a wonderfully festive atmosphere.
When: Feb 2 - Feb 4 (18:00 - open) Where: Yoshida Shrine Access: Kyodainogakubumae Bus Stop (8-minute walk)