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Ah, summertime. Ah, the time of festivals. The festivals in Japan are not like the festivals in the west where cheap beers and porter cabin toilets mix with muddy shoes and broken tents. These are traditional religious festivals in Japan that have been going for decades, sometimes hundreds of years, but they’re actually incredibly fun, energetic, vibrant and, in my opinion, what makes summer in Japan so great. Here are a selection of my favourite must go to events in Kansai in summer.
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►July 17th - 24th
One of the biggest festivals in Japan, and takes place most of July. The main events are mid-July, around the 17th and 24th of July, where huge wooden floats (Yamaboko Junko) are paraded around the streets of Kyoto in a huge and amazing spectacle. You can witness the construction of these Yamaboko Junko carts in the streets of Kyoto a few weeks in advance in the streets. They are impressive and beautiful. Made mainly from wood and rope, they often stand around 25 meters tall and weight up to 13 tons each.
Funnily enough the actual parade and festival don't take place in Gion, rather, on the west side of the Kamo river, right in the centre of Kyoto.
The festival dates back to 869 and hasn't changed since then. The idea of the festival was to please the gods to prevent any outbreaks and epidemics. The tradition of selecting a local young boy has still remained. The local boy is designated as the divine messenger and isn't allowed to set foot on the ground from the 13th till the 17th of July, essentially living in the Yamaboko Junko carts.
As well as the parades of the carts, The Gion Matsuri is also something of a massive street party. People dress up in their traditional Yukata and Kimono, drinks loads of beer, eat loads of street food, and have a laugh!
The main events are on the 17th of July and 24th of July, where the carts are paraded around the town. The festivities leading up to these days are called Yoiyama, where the roads are closed off in the afternoon and countless food stalls, drinks vendors, street games and other fun activities are held in the streets. The main areas are on Shijo Dori and Karasuma Dori, and surrounding back streets. Just basically follow the crowds!
Obon (Midsummer festivities) brings one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan. The Nara candle festival or ‘Nara Tokae’... The Nara lamp festival. The entire of the Nara park is lit up a night by hundreds of thousands of candles creating a stunning spectacle. Spend the evening wandering around with the deer, eating great street food at the stalls and observing the beauty of the sea of candles. This festival doesn't cost anything to go to! Nara Tokae is one of the main Obon festivals. Obon is the Japanese season of the return of the spirits. Where Japanese people welcome back their ancestor's spirits.
Note: Nara becomes extremely busy around this time. If you are needing a hotel, click here for booking.com offers for hotels in Nara.
Local girls wearing Yukata (summer Kimono). It's a tradition in the summer for men and women, boys and girls to wear Yukata to Obon festivals
Obon is one of the most significant times of the year in Japan as it’s the spiritual season where the Japanese welcome back the spirits of their ancestors. The season is similar to Christmas in the west, in terms of significance. The main festival is the Obon festival where people dance to traditional Obon music, usually wearing Yukata (summer Kimono). Loads of street food stalls (Yatai) sell food, and the atmosphere is great. In the heart of Osaka, Dotonbori, they have an annuals Obon festival. The main events are the actual dance where everyone dances in a huge circle to some Obon matsuri classics. I Highly recommend you check it out, there is no better atmosphere in town than this even. It occurs the whole weekend of the 12th of August and starts in the evening at 7.
One of the bigger fireworks festivals in Kansai, and indeed one of the most impressive. It lasts for around 2 hours and occurs on the Yoshino river. Also, there are loads of Yatai (street food stalls) selling yummy street food. This is a tradition at festivals in Japan. The nearest station is Gojo, which is on the JR line. If you don't have a Japan Rail Pass, click here to buy one. It makes travel on trains in Japan much easier, efficient and cheaper.
►Location: Yatai (street food stalls) all over Kyoto
Actual Daimonji fire characters: The hills surrounding Kyoto.
5 Large Kanji characters as bonfires are set alight in the hills surrounding Kyoto. This is to signify the end of 'Obon' (the returning of the ancestors' spirits). The large flaming characters are believed to help the spirits navigate back to the spirit world. The day the festival commences depends on weather conditions but is usually around the 16th or 17th of August. It is the culmination of the Obon season in Japan, the most important and significant in Japanese culture.
You will have to get to certain viewing points around the city to see the massive bonfires in the hills. Most hotels will allow guests onto the roof balconies to view the bonfires, and others will charge a small fee. Also, the Kamo river offers some good viewing points, but it will get crowded. I recommend booking a hotel in advance as they will get totally booked up. Click here for some booking.com deals.
I also recommend walking the streets are there are great festivities happening in the street, like local food stalls, drinks stalls, and people dressed in Kimono and Yukata! Great fun.
Toro Nagashi in Arashiyama is a Toro Nagashi festival. Toro Nagashi is basically a generic festival of releasing lanterns into a flowing river. The activity is usually done around Obon (the season of the spirits), and the idea is that the spirits manifest themselves in the lanterns and participants of Toro Nagashi are sending the spirits on their journey back to the spirit world after visiting in Obon.
The one in Arashiyama is particularly beautiful and Coincides with the Daimonji Matsuri (Gozan no Okuribi) and is quite large. Hundreds and even thousands of lanterns are released into the main river that runs through Arashiyama. You can also see the large characters that are set alight on fire, in the mountains, for the Daimonji Festival.
►July till early Autumn
A new beer garden has opened and is running for the second year! I went last year and it was fantastic. The beer garden is an annual summer event, that takes places at the famous Kamishichiken Kaburenjo venue in the famous old Geisha District of Kamishichiken. The venue is great because young maiko (junior Geisha) work here and will come and talk to you and you can take pictures with them too. You will also see some Geiko (senior Geisha) with some clients but don't take photos of them without asking!
The actual venue is incredibly beautiful with a large Japanese pond with Koi in it, with little bridges intertwining over it. The Beer garden is open from 17:30 pm until 22:00 (Last orders)
►For reservations call: +81 75-461-0148