There are three main festivals that stand out in Kyoto’s calendar, all of which are highly anticipated. However, this vibrant and bustling city is host to many celebrations, all significant in their own way. Though most are holidays celebrated by the whole of Japan, there are special ways that Kyoto makes these events their own.
New Year’s in Kyoto
New Year is a hugely significant holiday in Japan, and has as much anticipation and build-up as Christmas in Western cultures. Only around 1% of Japan’s population are Christian, so Christmas is not a major holiday in traditional Japanese culture and is mainly celebrated commercially. New Year’s, however, is considered the major event of the year’s calendar, with celebratory feasting and gatherings of friends and family taking place. After the traditional meal on New Year’s Eve, many people in Kyoto will go to their local temple to pray for the New Year and act out the ceremonial bell ringing (joya-no-kane). It is traditional for the bell to eventually be rung 108 times because this number symbolises the sins of the flesh. From New Year’s Eve until the third of January at the latest, the people of Kyoto will visit their nearest shrine and pray for good fortune of the coming year. This ceremony is called Hatsumode, and this is the first shrine visit of the year, making it very important.
Ebisu is one of the Shichifukujin, the seven lucky gods, and is in fact the only member who is purely Japanese in origin, with the others taking their roots from Chinese or Hindu influence. In Kyoto between January 8th and 10th, the residents of Kyoto visit the Ebisu-jinja shrine. The evenings are generally considered to be the opportune time to make this visit as that is when it is most lively. As Ebisu-san is the god of prosperity, it is customary to put some money in the donation box before praying to him. After ringing the gong and saying a prayer, the devotee then goes around to the right side of the main hall and knocks on the board found there and repeats their prayers. This is because Ebisu is famously hard of hearing, as he is an old god, so this is to make sure that he is awake to listen to you.
Celebrations of the Geisha
As discussed in some of our other blogs, Geisha are an essential part of Kyoto’s cultural history and set this city apart from others in Japan. From mid-March to mid-May, there are several important occasions for the Geisha of Kyoto. The Kitano Odori is the dance that is performed between March 25th and 31st and involves each of Kyoto’s five Geisha districts. This is followed by the Kyo Odori dance, famously performed by the Miyagawa-cho Geisha district, and the main dance of April which celebrates the Sakura season, the Miyako Odori. These April dances are beautifully complemented by the illuminated temple gardens, specially decorated for this time of year.
The Matsuri Festivals
The Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri festivals are the three main festivals of Kyoto. The word Matsuri literally translates to ‘traditional festival’ in Japanese, after all, it is widely known that Japan is a country that takes their traditional history and culture very seriously. The Aoi Matsuri, also referred to as the Kamo festival, comes about on May 15th annually and derives its name from the hollyhock leaves used for decoration throughout this festival. These leaves were initially used because they were believed to ward against natural disasters, which were most likely common during the rule of Emperor Kinmei (539-571 CE), during whose reign the festival is thought to originate. It wasn’t until the 9th century that the Aoi Matsuri was established as an annual imperial holiday by Emperor Kanmu of the Heian period, to protect the capital. Still today, hundreds of participants dress up in the traditional clothing of this era and parade from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines, Shimogamo and Kamigamo.
The Gion Matsuri takes place in July, with parades on the 17th and 24th of the month. Originating as part of a ritual of purification to appease the gods of fire, earthquakes and floods, the Gion district of Kyoto is where this festival takes its name from. Although this festival dates back to the 6th century, by the Kamakura period (1185-1333), it became a way for craft merchants to showcase their creations and good fortune. The highlight of Gion Matsuri is the Yoiyama parade and its floats, known as Yamaboko. These floats are beautifully decorated with tapestries and lanterns and carry around traditionally trained musicians and artists.
The Jidai Matsuri occurs on October 22nd and involves a portable shrine, a Mikoshi, and about two thousand participants dressed up in different costumes of Kyoto’s traditional history, including that of samurai. The Mikoshi is carried from the Kyoto Imperial Palace early in the morning accompanied by a military band in costume. Ending at the Heian Shrine, this festival portrays the rich and fascinating traditional history of Kyoto.
Tradition on Atelier Japan
All of the products featured on Atelier Japan draw on and are inspired by the distinguished traditional culture of Japan. Festivals and national holidays are just one part of this rich history, and our makers, Komaruya, have crafted an array of flawless festival fans such as the Aoi Festival Fan to purchase at Atelier Japan and bring this culture into your own home.