Category Archives: Festivals

Toka Ebisu on Inside Kyoto

#20 Maiko from the Miyagawa district

Maiko from the Miyagawa district meet the people at Toka Ebisu festival

My article on the recent Toka Ebisu Festival is now up on Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto site. Toka Ebisu is the first big festival of the year in Kyoto, and in my report I take an in-depth look at some of the traditions and rituals that are associated with it. I also explain why Ebisu, the god of good fortune, is such an excellent role model for the good citizens of Kyoto. With ancient shamanic rituals, mochi-rice pounding, maiko meet-n-greet events, and a giant frozen tuna (!) this popular local festival has a lot of diversity. Read all about it here: Toka Ebisu!

Entry to Ebisu Shrine at night

Entry to Ebisu Shrine at night

Toka Ebisu Festival Schedule – January 8th – 12th

Toka Shrine 1
Kyoto’s first big festival of the new year is Toka Ebisu and it starts this week! Ebisu being the god of good fortune and prosperity in business, thousands of local people will descend on Ebisu Shrine to pray for success in their work and business endeavors. The streets leading to the shrine are crowded with food stalls selling typical festival foods like taco-yaki, kara-age, ringo-ame and the like… Meanwhile the shrine itself does a roaring trade in good luck charms and lucky bamboo grass!
Toka Shrine 2
Below is a schedule of the main events to see during the 5 day festival: January 8th – 12th.

January 8thShōfuku-sai (招福祭) – Fortune Beckoning Festival
9:00: Ebisu Shrine opens
10:00: Hoekago Parade (宝恵かご社参)
Actresses from Eiga-mura are borne in litters to Ebisu Shrine. Later they will distribute branches of lucky bamboo grass to local businesses.
14:00: Yudate Kagura Ritual
A purification rite in which bamboo grass is dipped in boiling water to sprinkle it over the crowd.
14.30: Mochi-tsuki Kamiwaza
A rice pounding ritual with priests and shrine maidens in attendance.
23:00 Shrine closes

January 9th – Yoi Ebisu-sai (宵ゑびす祭) – “Ebisu Eve”

9:00: Ebisu Shrine opens
9:00: Shōfuku Maguro Hōnō (招福まぐろ奉納) – Dedication of lucky maguro tuna
10:00: Hoekago Parade (宝恵かご社参)
14:00: The festival continues with regular kagura dance performances
The shrine will be open until late.

shrine 3January 10th – Toka Ebisu Taisai (十日ゑびす大祭) – The Grand Toka Ebisu Festival
11:00 – 12:00: Toei Actresses give out branches of lucky bamboo grass.
1300 – 14:00: Toei Actresses give out branches of lucky bamboo grass.
14:00: The festival continues with regular kagura dance performances
The shrine will be open until late.

January 11th – Nokori Fuku-sai (残り福祭) – “Remaining Fortune Festival” 
14:00 – 16:00: Maiko from the Gion district will give out lucky rice cakes and branches of lucky bamboo grass.
shrine 420:00 – 22:00: Maiko from the Miyagawa district will give out lucky rice cakes and branches of lucky bamboo grass.
Midnight: The Shrine closes.

January 12th – Tetsu Fuku-sai (撤福祭) – “Retreating Fortune Festival”
9:00: Ebisu Shrine opens
20:00: Final kagura ceremonies
22:00: Ebisu Shrine Closes

Directions: Ebisu Shrine is on the west side of Yamato- Ooji Street, south of Shijo. Here is a map.

Gion Festival: Where Spirituality Meets Sustainability – A Talk by Catherine Pawasarat


Gion Festival images from Catherine Pawasarat

This from John Einarsen,

Did you know that the Gion Festival is one of the world’s oldest and most successful experiments in spiritual sustainability? This year the Great Ship Float (Oofune Boko) destroyed by fire in 1864 is being relaunched along with pre- and post-festival processions on July 17 and 24. Let spiritual teacher, environmental journalist and Gion expert Catherine Pawasarat guide you through the intricacies of the festival’s fascinating spiritual legacy and its latest iteration bringing together 1100 years of tradition with contemporary Japanese technology and sustainability practices.

Day: Sat, 12 July, 2014
Time: 17:00-18:30
Location: Impact HUB Kyoto. Access details and map here:
Entrance Fee: 1500 yen per person

Catherine Pawasarat is the creator of Catherine’s lifelong love affair with Kyoto began right after she graduated from Columbia University in 1989. With over two decades living in Japan as a journalist, writer, editor and intepreter, Catherine lived in the heart of the Gion Festival neighborhood. Her reporting on the Festival has focused on everything from the role of women in the festival to the heritage textiles that first piqued her interest in one of the world’s oldest living cultural legacies.

See also: Gion Festival – The Best English Language Resource on Facebook!
Gion Festival in Literature & Memory

Bean Pelting, Devils & Fiery Charms – Setsubun in Kyoto!

Setsubun is an old festival for seeing out the hardships of winter and welcoming in the spring, symbolized in the ritual act of throwing beans at mask clad devils… 鬼は外福は内! (“oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi!” – “devils out, and good luck in!“) people cry while pelting their lucky beans till the demonic forces beat a retreat. There are a variety of sites around town where you can join in with devil dances and bean throwing ceremonies which I shall list below.
Yoshida Shrine (see the poster above) holds the biggest Setsubun festival in Kyoto. The festival lasts for three days from the 2nd to the 4th. Highlights are the driving out of the evil spirits from 6pm on the evening of the 2nd and the fire festival from 11 pm on the 3rd. A huge bonfire is lit with piled up amulets, papers and charms – and when I say huge I mean it. It really is quite dramatic. As with most festivals there are 屋台 (yatai – food stalls) galore lining the route to the shrine, so there’s plenty to eat and drink. See details at the Yoshida Shrine website (Japanese):
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206 and get off at Kyodai Seimon-mae. Here is a MAP.

Other Setsubun locations:
Yasaka Shrine
img_setsubun01Here you get to see Maiko and Geiko throwing the beans! Bean pelting and traditional dances will occur at various times on both the 2nd & 3rd of February as ladies from different districts come to perform. Times on the 2nd are: 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. On the 3rd the times are 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 4pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206, and get off at Gion. Here is a MAP. Website (Japanese):

001Heian Shrine
February 3rd: From 12pm there is a Kyogen traditional comedy performance and bean pelting from 3pm. Sweet sake served free all day.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #5 and get off at Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsukan-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese/English website:

50setu_oni1biki_BRozan-ji Temple
February 3rd: Here you can see devil dancing from 3pm and bean pelting from 4pm. Old charms will be burned in a bonfire from 5pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #205 and get off at Furitsu Idai Byoin-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese website:

If you know of other Setsubun events around town, please list them in the comments! Here’s a video of Yoshida Shrine’s raging inferno to get you in the mood:

Kyoto Tanabata Festival

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Last weekend Mewby and I visited some of the Tanabata festival events now ongoing along the Horikawa and the Kamogawa rivers. Tanabata is the annual star festival celebrating “the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively)” (see more on Wikipedia!). The festival is celebrated on July 7th according to the modern calendar, but Kyoto celebrates by the old lunar calendar and so these events take place between August 3rd and 12th.

We went to see some of the illuminated artworks along the Horikawa last Sunday. They have many pieces fashioned from bamboo and light which are open to various interpretations.

A kind of Milky way tunnel of love…

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And a host of bamboo wish trees…

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We were very glad we got there early before it started to rain and it got really crowded. I recommend doing the same and avoiding this sort of kerfuffle:

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There’s also a number of craft beer stalls and ice creams on the arcade on the west side of Horikawa Street but if you really want food get yourself to the Kamo river!

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There you will find all kinds of tasty food stalls selling regional dishes from across the country. I particularly recommend the Alt craft beer from Akita. I had a couple of those. They also have a Yuzen dyeing demonstration in the river…

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Anyway, the festival by the Kamo is a really fun summery event and one we both really enjoyed. I’m sure we’ll be back this weekend.

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Check the Kyoto Tanabata  Festival website for more details. Other events on currently are:

Myoshinji Temple Light Up (August 9th-10th)
Kyoto Gojo Pottery Festival (August 7th-10th) – which Mr. Robert Yellin recommends visiting from dusk till 10pm.
Shimogamo Used Book Festival (August 11th – 16th)
and the rather spooky Rokudo Mairi (August 7th – 10th).

Many thanks to Sanborn Brown for keeping us all informed via his excellent Miyako on Two Wheels blog.

Kasagake at Kamigamo on October 16th

Deer-skinned horse riders deciding their turn by lottery

John Dougill writes,

There were traditionally three styles of horseback archery carried out for the entertainment of the kami. The most well-known is Yabusame, in which galloping riders shoot at a fixed target. Much rarer is Kasagake, to be performed this Sunday at Kamigamo Jinja. The other style involved firing at live dogs: thank goodness, it’s no longer practised.

Entry Procession

There is mention of Kasagake being carried out at Kamigamo Shrine some eight hundred years ago. Previously it had simply been a martial art, designed to improve battle skills. Legend has it that it began with Emperor Jimmu who used his helmet as a target. It was adapted as a shrine entertainment, and then died out.

Horse rider procession

In 2004 Kamigamo revived the ritual, and it is carried out by the Takeda-ryu school of horseback archers. Among the riders are descendants of the Kamo clan, who settled the Kyoto basin in pre-Heian times. The event begins and ends with the banging of a drum, following which a procession of colourfully costumed officials gather for a purification ceremony. The head rider then performs a Heaven and Earth ritual, by circling his horse first to the left and then to the right to summon yin-yang forces, before aiming a symbolic arrow upwards and downwards to ward off evil spirits.

Opening ritual - shooting towards the ground

There are ten riders in all, separated into two groups. Unusually for such an event there are women riders and the order of the riders is decided by lottery. On the first run through the riders fire at three targets at shoulder height. On the return run they fire at two targets set near the ground. The number of hits is recorded and announced over the tannoy. Once the results are in, the best five are put through into a second round, when the targets get smaller. Amazingly, this means that at a fairly high speed they fire at something little bigger than a saucer.

Winners and losers on their way back

Inui Mitsutaka

As part of the shrine’s outreach to foreigners, it provides an English-language commentary along with the Japanese, performed by Inui Mitsutaka who worked for a while with the International Shinto Foundation in New York. There’s much here that tells of the values of Shinto. The celebration of tradition. The entertainment for ancestral deities. The treasuring of skill and precision. Confucian and Taoist influences are evident, while the white horse on display brings to mind the importance of the animal as an emissary of the kami. They say Buddhism in Japan is a religion of the living concerned with death. Shinto on the other hand focuses on dead spirits but is concerned with life. Here in the galloping horses is a case in point.

The sacred white horse at Kamigamo (only to be seen at festivals and holidays)

The festival begins at 13.00.  Details about the shrine and how to reach it can be found here:
Tel 075-781-0011
Fax 075-702-6618
Nice short of video of it here,

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at


Shimogamo Jinja  July 21-24, from 5.30-22.30 

John Dougill writes,

Hot, hot and humid! At this time of year you may feel all you want to do is wade through cold water. Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine. Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for your legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.

Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity). The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality. In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.

The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold and invigorating. Participants pay Y200 and get a candle with which to wade upstream and set before Inoue Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami. Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.

Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water. There are black stones available too from the bottom of the stream, which are said to have a special deterrent power for disease demons, particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children. A suitable donation to the shrine is expected in exchange. On the way back, at the stalls in front of the shrine, you can get Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).

Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’. This is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode. Unlike the overcrowded Gion Festival, this is on a more manageable scale and reflects the community nature of Shinto. There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

Sunday at the Vegan Earth Festival

The sun was out and so were the crowds for Sunday’s Vegan Earth Day festival.

Amir from Falafel Garden - smiling the smile of good business.

Now obviously, the big thing at this kind of event is the food (apparently there’s no meat in it - but it still tastes ok!), but even if you aren’t hungry, just wandering around people-watching is pretty entertaining. I saw some familiar faces – like Falafel Garden‘s Amir for example. And then there were the unfamiliar faces of these handsome brutes – the men who sell Otokomae Tofu! Continue reading

Gion Festival

Tourists who came from afar were apt to think that the Gion Festival consisted of only the parade of floats on the seventeenth of July. Many also came to Hiezan on the night of the sixteenth. But the real ceremonies of Gion Festival continued all through July. In the various districts in Kyoto, each of which had its own Gion float, the festival bands began to perform and the amulet rituals commenced on the first of July…
Yasunari Kawabata, The Old Capital,1962, Tuttle Publishing.


Last night Mewby and I wandered through the festival crowds, down Shijo towards the warren of streets that lie west of Karasuma. One of the main pleasures of the festival is simply wandering about and watching all the people promenading in their summer finery. Mewby, herself looked lovely last night in her purple yukata.

The story of  the Gion Festival goes back to Heian times during a time of plague. The Emperor of the time ordered special prayers to be said at Yasaka Shrine and halberds were set up in the city as protective amulets against the evil of the disease.  Over time this ritual was repeated and the halberds became increasingly stylized and elaborate, eventually transforming into the festival floats or hoko, we see today… Continue reading