The Gion Festival (祇園祭, Gion Matsuri) takes place annually during the month of July in Kyoto and is one of the most famous and largest festivals in Japan. It is formally part of Japan’s indigenous, nature-based Shinto faith, and its original purposes were purification and pacification of disease-causing entities. There are many ceremonies held during the festival, but it is best known for its two Yamaboko Junkō (山鉾巡行) processions of floats, which take place on July 17 and 24. Many festival events take place in the historic kimono district in central Kyoto, and at the Yasaka Shrine. The Shinto Yasaka Shrine is the festival’s patron shrine. It is located in Kyoto’s famous Gion district, which gives the festival its name.
Kyoto’s downtown area is reserved for pedestrian traffic on the three nights leading up to the massive procession on July 17. These nights leading up to the festival are known as yoiyama (宵山) on July 16 and July 23, yoiyoiyama (宵々山) on July 15 and July 22, and yoiyoiyoiyama (宵々々山) on July 14 and July 21. From July 14–16, the streets are lined with night stalls selling food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken on skewers), taiyaki, takoyaki (fried octopus balls), okonomiyaki, traditional Japanese sweets, and many other culinary delights.
For centuries kimono merchants were major sponsors of the Gion Festival’s yamaboko floats. As a result, it’s tradition to wear yukata (summer kimono) and kimono to walk around the Gion Festival. One of its nicknames used to be “the Kimono Festival,” because so many visitors showed off the latest kimono fashions.
During the yoiyama evenings leading up to the parade, some private houses in the old kimono merchant district open their entryways to the public, exhibiting family heirlooms in a custom known as the Byōbu Matsuri, or Folding Screen Festival. This provides visitors with an opportunity to visit and observe traditional Japanese residences.