Thanks to its central role in Japanese history, Kyoto is home to a number of important festivals; the major celebrations are listed below. The cherry-blossom season hits Kyoto in early April – famous viewing spots include the Imperial Park, Yasaka-jinja and Arashiyama – while early November brings dramatic autumn colours. Many temples hold special openings in October and November to air their inner rooms during the fine, dry weather. This is a marvellous opportunity to see paintings, statues and other treasures not normally on public display; details are available in the free Kyoto Visitors’ Guide. Kyoto gets pretty busy during major festivals and national holidays, especially Golden Week (April 29–May 5).
Febuary 2–4 Setsubun
Annual bean-throwing festival celebrated at shrines throughout the city. At Yasaka-jinja, “ogres” scatter beans and pray for good harvests, while Heian-jingū hosts performances of traditional kyōgen theatre on Feb 3.
April 1–30 Miyako Odori
Performances of traditional geisha dances in Gion.
April 7–22 Kyo Odori
Performances by the geisha and maiko of the Miyagawachō district.
May 15 Aoi Matsuri
The “Hollyhock Festival” dates back to the days when this plant was believed to ward off earthquakes and thunder. Now it’s an occasion for a gorgeous, yet slow, procession of people dressed in Heian-period costume (794–1185). They accompany the imperial messenger and an ox cart decked in hollyhock leaves from the Imperial Palace to the Shimo-gamo and Kami-gamo shrines, in north Kyoto.
May 1–24 Kamo-gawa Odori
Performances of traditional dances by geisha in Pontochō.
June 1–2 Takigi Nō
Nō plays performed by torchlight at Heian-jingū.
July 17 Gion Matsuri
One of Kyoto’s great festivals dates back to Heian times, when ceremonies were held to drive away epidemics of the plague. The festivities focus on Yasaka-jinja and culminate on July 17 (though there are related events throughout the whole of the month), with a grand parade through central Kyoto of tall, pointy yama-boko floats, richly decorated with local Nishijin silk. Night festivals are held three days prior to the parade, when the floats are lit with lanterns. Some can be viewed inside for a few hundred yen.
August 16 Daimonji Gozan Okuribi
Five huge bonfires etch kanji characters on five hills around Kyoto; the most famous is the character for dai (big) on Daimonji-yama, northeast of the city. The practice originated from lighting fires after Obon.
October 22 Jidai Matsuri
This “Festival of the Ages” was introduced in 1895 to mark Kyoto’s 1100th anniversary. More than two thousand people, wearing costumes representing all the intervening historical periods, parade from the Imperial Palace to Heian-jingū.
October 22 Kurama-no-Himatsuri
After the Jidai parade, hop on a train north to see Kurama‘s more boisterous Fire Festival. Villagers light bonfires outside their houses and local lads carry giant, flaming torches (the biggest weighing up to 100kg) to the shrine. Events climax around 8pm with a mad dash up the steps with a mikoshi, after which there’s heavy-duty drinking, drumming and chanting till dawn. To get there, take the Eizan line from Kyoto’s Demachiyanagi Station (30min); it’s best to arrive early and leave around 10pm unless you want to see it through.
December 1–25 Kabuki Kaomise
Grand kabuki festival.
December 31 Okera Mairi
The best place to see in the New Year is at Gion’s Yasaka-jinja. Apart from the normal festivities (see Festival fun), locals come here to light a flame from the sacred fire, with which to rekindle their hearths back home. As well as general good luck, this supposedly prevents illness in the coming year.