[ Asia ]

Kyoto, Japan – The Gion Festival

So, so tired. I tried to keep my eyes open as the green hills passed by in a blur. They were turning blue as the daylight faded and knowing darkness was settling in made staying awake even harder. The train rocked to one side and my head jerked up. I was failing at wakefulness; my head fell back against the seat. More rocking, more jerking. A soothing voice told us Kyoto Station was next. Ugh, I have to get up and get my stuff. Quietly, a little voice in the back of my head reminded me, “You will be closer to a real bed, just a little bit longer.” We stepped off the train in the throngs of Kyoto at rush hour.

The journey had begun in Cancun, Mexico. Two days prior I had spent the day in bed, feeling rotten with a terrible cold. It was fading just as we were beginning our trip to the airport at 0330, hailing a taxi in the dark morning. We had a twelve-hour layover in Dallas and a quick turnaround airport hotel stay in Los Angeles. The flight to Los Angeles had been delayed and problems with baggage service further made that leg even longer. Although the little airport hotel room smelled like a few pets had had accidents inside it, we claimed as many hours of sleep as we could. But on the upside, it had delicious biscuits and gravy!

Eleven more hours in the air and we had landed in Tokyo. We were immediately awed by the shiny new airport and the efficiency, oh the efficiency! It was a blissful entry to Japan. Immigration including temperature scan for sickness, pictures, and fingerprints was quick and polite. Baggage was brought in a timely manner on silent carousels (rubber fenders). Everything was clean and quiet. The famous Japanese bathrooms had thought of everything: noise machines of waterfalls, heated seats, bidets, a place for your bag, a place for your child, a tiny urinal in the ladies room for little boys. Someone, send an executive from LAX! Take notes!

We had activated our rail passes and set off into the Japanese train system. First, the airport train, then the train to one of the large Tokyo stations, then the bullet train to Kyoto, then the subway to our stop, find one of eight exits, then walk 700 meters, get the key from the mailbox (turn to left, put in code, turn to right, hold button and press code), take the elevator to the 10th floor, walk into the apartment, and collapse. Wait, we stink. Shower first, then collapse into bed. Phew!

It all went quite smoothly with no problems due to the specificity of directions available in Japan and provided by our Airbnb host, and because of the wonderful efficiency of the train system. When I say wonderful, I mean it. I love love love Japan’s trains! We did feel like we were on a bit of a scavenger hunt with so many transfers. Arrivals in Japan aren’t all so involved, we had chosen to go straight to Kyoto and stay in an apartment rather than a hotel. It would be like flying into New York and staying in downtown Philadelphia.

For those that keep track of these things, easier itineraries are available from Cancun to Tokyo. We chose the cheapest in points and dollars options, which meant some less than ideal layovers and a long journey. Had we taken this trip while working, we would have chosen a more efficient routing. But since we aren’t counting vacation days, a tired day doesn’t matter. We have the time to hang out in airports and to take a day to sleep once we arrive.

We had come to Kyoto first to see the Gion Festival, a yearly tradition dating back to the ninth century. After we recovered, we ventured out into the city to find some food and scope out the festival. Not far from the apartment Zack spotted a Dean & Deluca, one of our favorite food specialty stores/cafes. Maybe it was our excitement, but this one seemed much better than the US ones we knew. So many kinds of Japanese noodles, sauces, spices, European food, artful desserts, foods of which we had no knowledge or idea, and a prepared food case that looked delicious! Noting our hunger and the serious heat outside, we stopped and had lunch. It was delicious, and we would return several times.

The Gion Festival centers around a parade of traditional floats, essentially massive wooden carts. In the days before the parade, the roads are closed and they are built in the streets, scattered about through the old city. Tours are available for the big ones, but you can walk right up to all of them to admire the craftsmanship. Each float has a specific story behind it which is conveniently posted. We joined the growing crowds with our free fans and meandered around the streets taking it all in.

Gion Festival
Zack making use of his fan in a circle of shade.
Two Americans in Kyoto
Gion Festival
Gion Festival
Many Kyoto Citizens dress for the occasion in summer kimono.

We approached a large unique float, built in the shape of a boat. It was ornately decorated with tapestries, gold, and mother of pearl, and we joined the line for a tour. Once it was our turn, we paid the equivalent of 7 USD, took off our shoes, and climbed the stairs to the second story of a building to cross a bridge to the float – they are that tall! We sat in the boat and listened as a woman in traditional dress gave a presentation. Since we don’t speak Japanese we didn’t understand a word, but seeing the float from inside was well worth the price.

Gion Festival
Each float’s story is posted in multiple languages.
Gion Festival
In the float!
Gion Festival
This float was unique as it was the only boat. Check out the black rudder at the back with a mother of pearl dragon!

One of the highlights of the festival is the night before the parade, called Yoiyama. Food, drink, and game vendors fill the streets and the floats are lit up with many lanterns. Throngs of people come out to enjoy the evening, and we were two of them. Once again, we turned down the narrow streets of our neighborhood, and in just a few minutes were shuffling along with the crowd.

It was drizzling, which meant we were shuffling in a crowd of umbrellas. Japanese culture is very practical, so almost everyone carries an umbrella and they go up in the lightest of showers.  It felt strange to be as tall as most people in the crowd and able to see over many. We smiled at each other as we grew closer to the festivities, this is an experience like none other.

Our first stall stop yielded a cold draft beer, delicious in the muggy afternoon. Next, we stopped for teriyaki noodles which put all the other teriyaki noodles I have had to shame. They were topped with something like prosciutto, but made of fish – the combination went perfectly with our beer. Then, another beer. We turned a corner and saw Crème Brulee donuts, torched right in front of us! Oh, we split one and it was magnificent.

Gion Festival
Stoked for Noodles!
Enjoying Yoiyama, the night before the parade. That’s a lit float in the background.
Getting Up Close

At another stop I chose a beer based on the picture on the can, it was awful! Zack graciously finished it for me and we picked up some sweet potatoes with sugar and Indian food before calling it a night. So many other treats were on offer, but we quickly became full. Even though the streets were packed with people making merry, eating and drinking, and enjoying the music from some of the floats, everything was surprisingly quiet. Once again, we marveled at the Japanese culture and went to bed spent.

Fish on a Stick!
Japanese Organization – A bin for every piece of trash including chopsticks. Despite the crowds, the streets were exceptionally clean due to stations like this one all over.

The day of the parade was another hot and humid one. We snagged a spot on the main boulevard near our apartment and awaited the floats. And we waited, and we waited. Finally, we spotted one large one approaching at the corner. Minutes passed by and it didn’t seem to be moving, just teetering there at the corner. We wondered if there was a problem at the turn. Finally, it began moving again and we watched the traditional dances and music as it came closer.

Gion Parade
The Gion Parade

The heat felt sweltering. Each float is moved in the traditional way, a bunch of men stationed along two long ropes, pulling it. It’s a very slow moving parade! We decided to walk backward along it to see the other floats. Each float’s group of pullers and dancers was dressed in traditional kimono, specific to the float’s story. The outfits were beautiful, some in elaborate colors, others in two tone designs and patterns. At a corner, we watched a float being turned and learned why it took so long. Slats of wood are repeatedly wedged under the wheels as the front of the float is pulled sideways, it takes nearly ten minutes to make a 90-degree turn.

Gion Festival
Turning a Float
Gion Parade
Some Shade on a Break
Gion Parade
A Smaller Float

We stopped into one of Kyoto’s many bakeries for lunch and a cool drink. After our treats, we came back out and found we still had to walk farther to see the float we had toured, the boat float. Seriously, it’s a very slow parade. Walking all the way to the end of the parade, we found it and were even more impressed to see it on the route. Satisfied, we headed back toward the apartment to hopefully catch a view from on high.

Gion Parade
Child Dancers on the Move
Gion Parade
Impressive, no?
Gion Parade
Another Angle

On the way home, we passed through a large marketplace and ended up on a very cute side street filled with pretty little shops. Then, Zack pointed out something very special, our favorite chocolate shop when we were in Paris had a branch here! Well, that was an incredible surprise, we fell in love with Kyoto even more and headed in to buy chocolates and ice cream.

Parisian Treats in Kyoto

We had to navigate plenty of parade road blocks to get back to our apartment and ran into half a dozen dead ends before we made it to our building. Sure enough, we were in time to catch some glimpses of the end of the parade from the tenth floor. It might be the slowest parade in the world!

Gion Parade
The parade as seen from our apartment.

Once the sun set we wandered out in search of dinner. Kyoto is an old city, there are some high-rises, but not skyscrapers. The streets feature traditional Japanese architecture, many buildings date back hundreds of years, and it’s all very walkable. Kyoto was a possible atomic bomb target during World War Two. The thought was that because the city holds such cultural importance as a historic capital and center of tradition that it would really break the will of the people. As we all know, other cities ultimately became the final targets. Just one stitch in history, one decision, can change the course of so much for so many people. So, Kyoto wasn’t hit (with that bomb) and the ancient buildings we walked among stood with their tiny entrances beckoning.

After a few turns here and there, we found a simple banner hanging from amber windows. Upon reading the menu, we both decided we could eat some Italian food and stepped inside. The tiny restaurant had only four tables downstairs and a bit more upstairs. A very gracious waiter found us a table despite a lack of reservation and we settled into the cozy dining room. Our meal and drinks were exquisite, worthy of Bon Appetit magazine. The service was impeccable and we were both thrilled with our evening.

Anchor Restaurant, Kyoto

It may sound odd to eat Italian food in Japan. In fact, it is very popular, as is French food, and really food from all over the world. During our time in Kyoto, we were also surprised to find that café culture is very prominent in Japan. Stopping in for a tea or coffee and perfectly baked pastry in the morning or afternoon is so common there are cafes on every corner. We are definitely on board with this lifestyle!

Kyoto immediately charmed us with its history, restaurants, cafes, and cute lanes. The festival proved to be as exciting and the glimpse into Japanese culture that we had hoped. We were excited to be in a land so different from our travels so far and with such a rich and intriguing culture.

With the festival over, we set our sights on the hundreds of things to do in the city. We used our jet lag to our advantage and made early starts on the Tenryu-ji Buddhist Temple, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, and the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrines.

Our various sight-seeing trips had us transiting through Kyoto Station, the main train station, several times. When we emerged from the lower subway floors to change trains our necks immediately craned upward. The station is a massive futuristic structure of steel and glass spanning fifteen floors. Home to a hotel, two food malls, two shopping malls, a large department store (covering ten floors), a theater, art gallery, and several individual restaurants, the station is a small town unto itself.

Kyoto Station
Kyoto Station
Kyoto Station
Looking down from the 12th floor.

On our last evening in Kyoto, we finally made it to the famous Gion district (although the festival shared the name, it doesn’t actually take place there). The Gion district is home to Japan’s famous geishas and exquisite tea houses and restaurants tucked into cobbled streets. We strolled around spotting many restaurants where we could while away many hours, and the rest of the year’s budget.

Kyoto RIver
The Kamo River

We also spotted one geisha while waiting to cross the road. While it was exciting for us to experience this glance into Japanese tradition, several tourists on the street harassed the woman. Some shoved cameras in her face like amateur paparazzi and she hurried across as soon as the light turned.

After taking in views of the river, we headed to a tiny gin bar for some cocktails. We had been walking all afternoon and were ready for a cold drink. Finally, we navigated the tiny alleyways by the river, arrived ten minutes before the bar opened and were in as soon as they let us! Walking into the bar was like falling down the rabbit hole. The bar itself sits covered in astroturf, a leafless tree stood with torn book pages as ornaments, and blinking colored twinkle lights provided the only illumination.

We ordered our cocktails which were as inventive as the décor and inspected the many gin bottles from around the world. When gin flows, so does conversation and we sat chatting, happy to be alone in this tiny gin bar getting to know each other over again.

Kyoto Bar
Kan Pai! (Cheers in Japanese)

Finally, we packed up our tiny apartment, vowing to return to Kyoto one day. Before catching our train, we stopped for lunch at where else, Kyoto Station. A restaurant called Katsukura caught our eye on an earlier occasion. Excited to try it, we made our way to the 12th floor to try it.

Katsu is meat, usually pork, breaded and pan-fried in Japanese bread crumbs. At Katsukura, it is served with barley rice, cabbage, seaweed salad, and a host of dipping sauces you can mix yourself from spicy to sweet, kind of like barbeque sauces. The friendly waitress showed us how to grind our sesame seeds for our dips and which sauces pair well with each food. We enjoyed our meal with plum brandy and soda, a new cocktail for us; it was very refreshing on a hot day.

Enjoying our feast, or what’s left of it.
Japanese Ascetics

The meal was the best we had in Kyoto, a new and delicious culinary experience. We could have sat there all afternoon, but a line was building at the door. So, we pulled ourselves away and went off in search of our train to Hiroshima.

Check out our video for donut footage and all our Kyoto fun!

© Cheers Life Partners 2017

Tags: , , , ,

About Author

The Cheers Life

We make every day worthy of a toast! We quit our jobs in October 2016 to travel the world full time.


  1. Once again, you make everything so detailed, a perfect picture forms in my mind. Although you make me feel as if I am there with you, I truly DO want to be there, experiencing it with you. And the creme brulee donuts still are something I want, yum!

Send a Comment

Your email address will not be published.