SUMMER in Japan is party time. Families hit the beaches, workers flock to beer gardens and just about everyone ends up at a festival at some point.
Festivals — matsuri — are held throughout the year in Japan but are particularly common in the hottest months. In the age before refrigerators and electric fans, cases of food poisoning and heat stroke would surge at this time, giving rise to purification rituals that form the basis of many summer matsuri today. The focus has moved from expelling evil spirits to warding off boredom, but festivals are still a mainstay of summer. Having lived in Japan for more than a decade, I’ve done my share of festival-hopping.
Here are a few events in Kyoto and the neighbouring prefecture of Shiga worth checking out.
Ajisai Matsuri (Hydrangea Festival)
Summer festivals can be lively, raucous events so the tranquil Ajisai Matsuri makes for a welcome change. Held at Sanzen-in, a centuries-old temple in Ohara, about 45 minutes by bus from the Kyoto city centre, this flower festival is a chance for visitors to unwind in nature as they wander among the blue and purple blooms.
Thousands of bushes have been planted over the sprawling grounds and those who go in June can also enjoy the translucent green of new maple leaves and carpets of moss that glisten after rain.
Ohara is a picturesque village filled with temples, thatched-roof farmhouses and shops selling local specialities, so do set aside a day to explore the area.
When: The festival is expected to run for a month from June 16 (dates to be confirmed).
Admission: 700 yen (S$8.50) for adults, 400 yen for 12- to 18-year-old students, and 150 yen for primary schoolchildren.
Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival)
One of the most well-known festivals in Japan, the Gion Matsuri is traditionally also the biggest event on Kyoto’s social calendar.
Entire neighbourhoods organise themselves in support of the giant wooden floats pulled through the streets on July 17 and 24.
Decorated lavishly with art treasures passed down through the ages, the floats form a moving museum that wends its way around central Kyoto to the sounds of traditional music performed by musicians on board.
There are rituals, smaller parades and related events throughout July. During the three nights preceding the processions, the public can view the floats, parked in the Shijo-Karasuma area in downtown Kyoto, and even enter a few of them.
Food and drink stalls line the streets, making the event more than a feast for the eyes, and everywhere you go, hypnotic festival music will fill your ears.
When: July 1 to 31 (Yamaboko junko processions on July 17 and 24; Yoiyama festival nights from July 14 to 16 and July 21 to 23).
Admission: Free with charges for entry to parade floats (about 1,000 yen or less) in the run-up to the processions.
Info: www.discoverkyoto.com/ event-calendar/july/gion-festivalyasakashrine-downtown/
Tip: The Yoiyama festival nights from July 21 to 23 are held on a smaller scale and are less crowded.
Kyo no Tanabata (Kyoto Star Festival)
The star festival of Tanabata celebrates the annual reunion of a pair of celestial lovers. According to legend, Hikoboshi (Altair) and Orihime (Vega) have been forced to live apart, but once a year — on the seventh day of the seventh month — they are allowed to cross the Milky Way that separates them, and meet.
In Kyoto, the festival is marked with several events in July and August, with the highlight being Kyo no Tanabata.
At the two main sites, located alongside the Horikawa and Kamogawa rivers, bamboo and lights are used to construct paths that evoke the Milky Way so visitors can feel that they, too, are crossing a river of stars.
When: The 2018 dates have yet to be confirmed. Based on the schedule of past years, the festival is likely to run from Aug 4 to 10.
Admission: Free for the main Horikawa and Kamogawa sites.
Gojozaka Touki Matsuri (Gojozaka Pottery Festival)
Billed as the biggest pottery festival in Japan, the Gojozaka Touki Matsuri features about 400 shops lining both sides of the busy Gojodori avenue.
The area has a long association with Kiyomizu-yaki, a colourful style of Kyoto pottery, but the wares at the festival range from earthy tableware to refined celadon and cheerful kitsch.
There’s something for every taste and budget, whether you’re a visitor looking for interesting souvenirs, a serious ceramics collector or a newly-wed hoping to stock your kitchen without breaking the bank.
The mood is festive and the vendors, relaxed. They won’t take offence if you try to haggle, so bring cash and a hopeful expression.
When: Aug 7 to 10
Gyuniku Summit (Beef Summit)
Beef vendors from all over Japan slug it out every August at the Gyuniku (Beef) Summit, held in Shiga prefecture, Kyoto’s neighbour.
Once called Omi, the prefecture is the birthplace of Omi beef, one of the three best-known brands of wagyu, with the other two being Kobe and Matsuzaka.
Customers can try beef in all kinds of permutations — steak cubes, yakiniku, beef sushi, beef noodles, beef rice bowls, American-style hamburgers — then vote for their favourite stall.
An eatery serving cubes of Matsuzaka steak has taken the top spot for three years, but don’t leave without trying the “drinkable” hamburger: an unassuming looking mincemeat patty that falls apart in your mouth, releasing a rush of rich meat juices and leaving yet another happy summer memory.
When: The event is usually held on the last weekend of August.
Admission: Free. Servings at the booths cost 500 yen to 1,500 yen each.
Tip: The vendors are paid using tickets that can be bought at the event. The stalls open at 10am. Go before noon for shorter queues.
SIA and Scoot offer direct flights to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. To get to Kyoto, take a train (about 75 minutes) or limousine bus (about 85 minutes).
Taxi companies MK Taxi and Yasaka Taxi also run a door-to-door minibus service from the airport.
A train ride of about 30 to 45 minutes will take visitors from central Kyoto to the main tourist areas of Shiga prefecture.
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