The main events of Gion Matsuri start tonight in Kyoto with Yoiyama and conclude on Sunday with Yamaboko Junko. Although Yamaboko Junko (the procession of floats through the streets of Kyoto) is considered to be the highlight of the month-long festival, I always enjoy Yoiyama much more, probably because I love night photography and Japanese lanterns (chochin) so much.
During Yoiyama, all the floats that will be on parade on Sunday are on display on the side streets West of Karusama Dori and South of Oike Dori in Central Kyoto for three nights (7/14 – 7/16). There are also hundreds of food stands and souvenir stalls as well. I usually try to arrive at about 5 p.m. or so and just walk around to see what lanterns attract me most this year. It’s still a little too light at 6 p.m. to get the photos I want, but the sweet spot comes around 6:45 p.m. The darkening blue sky is in balance with the lanterns, so the sky is a rich blue and the lanterns don’t look overexposed in photographs.
By 7:15 the sky is too dark for my taste, and it’s time to put the camera away and head for the nearest cold beer stand. Fortunately, there are several on pretty much every block during the festival. A little photography, a little beer, and a little food. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
There are also several interesting events at Yasaka Shrine on 7/15 and 7/16. My favorite is Iwami Kagura, a form of folk dance based on Japanese mythology and Buddhist teachings. I believe the performance starts at 7:00 p.m. Like all the other events of Gion Matsuri, it will be extremely crowded. I recommend arriving at least an hour early.