Summer in Japan is perhaps the least popular season because it gets incredibly hot and humid, mosquitos attack at full force, while cicadas get obnoxiously loud. Yet, summertime brings along a lot of exciting local celebrations and festivals and is a perfect time to fully immerse into Japanese culture and learn about its historical heritage. To prove just that, I curated a list of things you shouldn’t miss in Kyoto during the summer season which hopefully will give you ideas for your trip planning.
Partake in Summer Festivals
Don’t miss Aoi Matsuri, or “Hollyhock Festival,” which is one of Kyoto’s three most famous festivals held annually on May 15. Held since the 7th century, it is a festival of the two Kamo shrines in the north of the city, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. Its main parade displays 500 people dressed in remarkable historic Japanese costumes from the Heian Period. The parade begins at the Imperial Palace arriving at the Shimogamo Shrine where the participants join a ceremony. The procession then departs for Kamigamo Shrine. You can purchase tickets for special seating or arrive really early to score a good viewing spot. You can find out detailed information here.
Perhaps the biggest and most significant summer festival in Kyoto is Gion Festival held by Yasaka Shrine. Established 1,100 years ago, it lasts for the entire month of July and culminates in a grand procession of enormous floats, the Yamaboko Junkō on July 17 and July 24.
August brings along Kyo No Tanabata. According to the legend, the weaver Orihime and the herd Hikoboshi fell madly in love and neglected their duties. Orihime’s father punished the couple by banishing Hikoboshi to the other side of the River of the Heavens (represented by the Milky Way). Orihime fell into despair because of the loss of her sweetheart and eventually, her father relented and allowed the two to meet once a year—on the seventh day of the seventh month. This day is now marked as Tanabata, and the Japanese celebrate it by writing their wishes on strips of paper and tying them on bamboo branches. Magical illuminations and art projections are displayed mainly on the Hori-kawa River and Kamo-gawa River in true Kyoto style creating magical ambiance allowing visitors to enjoy the summer season during the cool evenings.
Last but not least, summer in Japan is associated with spectacular firework festivals called hanabi. Originally used to ward off evil spirits, fireworks have a long history in Japan. The scene is pretty similar to hanami in spring, with locals dressing up in yukata, blue tarps spread out, and plenty of food and drinks available to enjoy. Two firework festivals closest to Kyoto are Minato Maizuru Chatta Matsuri held in Maizuru City, and Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka. Please consult with this website to research the most up to date information about scheduled firework festivals in Japan.
Dress up in Yukata
Wearing local attire is one of the best ways to fully immerse into the local culture of your host country. This is a very popular pass-time for locals and visitors alike. There are quite a few rental companies where you can pick summer yukata with corresponding accessories and then spend the day visiting sights and imagining what it would feel like to live in a Kyoto of yesteryear. The experience might seem a bit cheesy and touristy, but trust me, it will leave you with a lot of positive memories. Read the details of my yukata rental and dress-up experience here.
To avoid the sweltering heat of summer sun, the locals often look for a little bit of respite in the surrounding mountains of Kibune. From May till mid-September, this little town attracts visitors eager to indulge in one of the best summer traditions that Japan has to offer – kawadoko. Originating in Edo period, kawadoko translates as ‘river floor’ and refers to dining on the patio extended over the river. Visitors are invited to sit on the tatami-floor platforms that are constructed just centimeters above the river. It is one of my fondest memories in Japan and I truly couldn’t recommend this experience enough, as you can well read in my detailed post here. If you cannot make it to Kibune, a more modernized version of kawadoko dining is in the heart of Kyoto along Kamo river. Almost all restaurants along Ponto-cho alley set up verandas atop the creek and offer outdoor seating when it’s not raining.
Visiting the lush forests of Arashiyama are always a good idea, but even more so during the hot summer days. After enjoying an early morning stroll through the bamboo forest, surrounding temples as well as some of the secluded moss gardens, stop for a refreshing afternoon tea at Suiran. This luxury ryokan is nestled right on the banks of the Katsura River and offers spectacular views from their veranda. Their afternoon tea accompanied with seasonal treats was delightful and totally worth the price. Once you’re done indulging, you can head down to the river and take the scenic boat ride.
Trip to Kyoto by the Sea
There is so much more to the Kyoto prefecture than the former imperial capital. If you’re like me and crave to be closer to the waterside in summer, then you must plan a trip to Kyoto by the Sea. In my post 7 Wonders of Kyoto You Didn’t Know Existed, I tell you all about this untapped rural region of Kyoto prefecture located along the spectacular coast of the Sea of Japan. Historic villages, unique craft workshops, onsen and delicious local food makes this part of Japan well worth the visit, especially if you’re looking to see and do something off the beaten path.
Hunt for Hydrangeas
The beginning of summer is marked by the blooming season of hydrangeas or ajisai. There are quite a few sprawling gardens around Kyoto where you can enjoy these candy-colored flowers in June. Mimurotoji is a temple, dubbed Ajisai-ji or Hydrangea Temple, is home to perhaps one of the biggest gardens with 10,000 varieties blooming in the midst of cedar trees. See if you can locate one of their heart-shaped hydrangeas during your visit and stick around for the nightfall when the flowers are beautifully illuminated. If you care to explore more blooming gardens, this article provides a comprehensive list.
Humid days and sudden showers of the rainy season in Japan (which lasts June to mid-July) coincides with the appearance of a captivating early summer spectacle: fireflies. Firefly viewing is a centuries-old Japanese summer tradition lovingly depicted in various art forms, from Japanese poetry to Studio Ghibli’s anime films. Similar to other seasonal natural phenomena, locals have long held a soft spot for these tiny glowing insects and special viewing events are organized in designated spots. Philosopher’s Path, Daikakuji Temple in Arashiyama, Takaragaike in the northern part of Kyoto, Hotaru-iwa (Firefly-rock) about 10 minutes-walk from Kibune-guchi near Kurama, as well as Uji City Botanical Park are a few of the posts you can catch a good view of fireflies. Timing is crucial since the tiny creatures make an appearance for a short peak period. This website provides daily updates on how many fireflies can be viewed in the Uji park which might be the most helpful for planning.
Grab a Beer at Santory Factory
You can also escape the summer heat by booking a tour of the Santory Beer Factory in Kyoto where you have an opportunity to learn about the brewing process, partake in workshops and indulge in beer tasting. Find out all the details here.
I hope you enjoyed this short breakdown of things to do in Kyoto in summer and will find it helpful while planning your trip to Japan.
Which of these activities would do if you visited Kyoto in summer?