January sees several fascinating events happening in Kyoto. From celebrations of the New Year to the wonderful Toka Ebisu festival to raucous shrine prayers to get rich, there’s plenty of quintessentially Kyoto events to enjoy
Yasaka Jinja shrine: beeboys / Shutterstock.com
1 January 2020
This is an interesting twist on the usual hatsumode (first shrine visit of New Year’s). Here, people visit Yasaka-jinja Shrine and purchase sacred ropes, which they then set alight from piles of burning prayer sticks. They then try to transport the rope home without it going out. To do so, they keep the ember burning by swinging the rope around in circles. Needless to say, you can’t take the burning ropes on buses, trains or taxis, so it helps to live within walking distance of the shrine! Once home, the fire is used to light a cooking fire and a sacred candle. Sacred rice cakes are then cooked over the cooking fire.
2-31 January 2020
Event: New Year’s Feature Exhibition, The Many Hats of Rats!
Location: Heisei Chishinkan Wing (The Collections Galleries), Gallery 1F-5
Time: Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday: 9:30am-5:00pm (Enter by 4:30pm), Friday, Saturday: 9:30am-8:00pm (Enter by 7:30pm)
Closed: Mondays and January 1st and 14th, 2020
2020 is the Year of the Rat. In keeping with their tradition of holding an exhibition featuring the animal of the Chinese Zodiac for the New Year, the Kyoto National Museum is holding an exhibition featuring the rat (or mouse) in Japanese art. This is a good chance to see a wide variety of works from many periods of Japanese history. If this is your Chinese zodiac sign, then you might consider this a must-see event.
5 January 2020
Event: To-ji Temple Flea Market
Location: To-ji Temple
If you can’t be in town for Kyoto’s two famous flea markets (Kobo-san Market and Tenjin-san Market), this is a good choice. Like the Kobo-san Market, it’s held on the grounds of To-ji Temple. You’ll usually find a good selection of antiques at this market.
Ebisu-jinja Shrine – image © Inside Kyoto
8-12 January 2020
This is one of my favorite yearly festivals in Kyoto. It’s held at Ebisu-jinja Shrine, which is a short walk from either Gion-Shijo or Kiyomizu-Gojo Stations on the Keihan Line (just follow the crowds). It happens all day from the 8th to the 12th, but it’s best to go in the evenings, when the place gets packed and raucous. Ebisu-san (Ebessu-san in Kyoto dialect) is one of the Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese mythology (many originally from Chinese mythology). Ebisu-san is believed to be the god for prosperity and so anyone looking to get rich shows up to ask for Ebisu-san’s blessings in the New Year.
People buy all kinds of lucky charms at the shrine, which are hung on young bamboo, which is also sold at the shrine (these are taken home and displayed in a prominent place). But, the main part of the ritual is waiting to throw some cash into the donation box in front of the main hall, then ringing the bell and saying a prayer to Ebisu-san. After praying to Ebisu, people make their way around to the right side of the main hall and bang their fists on a board there and repeat their prayers. Believe it or not, Ebisu-san is said to be hard of hearing – hence the need to make a racket. Well, maybe it’s not so hard to believe: If Ebisu-san was able to hear everyone’s prayers for wealth, the whole world would be filthy rich!
See our comprehensive photo report about attending Toka Ebisu.
9-10 January 2020
Like the more famous Toka Ebisu (above), this festival, held at Yasaka-jinja Shrine is a chance for Kyotoites to pray for a prosperous New Year. In the afternoon on the 9th, a parade leaves from the shrine and heads west down Shijo-dori (the best place to watch). First come the shrine maidens and shrine priests, followed by an image of Ebisu and then a “boat” carrying Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese mythology.
15 January 2020
Chion-ji Temple hosts a fabulous handicraft market on the 15th of every month. It’s a great place to pick up unique, locally made souvenirs during your travels to Kyoto. It’s also a good chance to see Japan’s alternative community and local expats.
21 January 2020
Event: Kobo-san Market (Hatsu Kobo)
Location: To-ji Temple
Named for Japan’s most revered Buddhist Saint, Kobo Daishi, this market is one of the two best markets in town (the other being the Tenjin-san Market, held on the 25th). You’ll find all manner of goods on sale here including used kimono, antiques, ceramics, food, bric-a-brac, old postcards and books, and assorted Japanalia. In addition to being a great market, this is also a chance to see Kyoto’s foreign community, which turns out in full, along with hoards of locals.
25 January 2020
Event: Tenjin-san Market (Hatsu Tenjin)
Location: Kitano Tenmangu
Like the Kobo-san market (see previous), this is one of the two best markets in town. It’s named for Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th century poet and scholar who is the patron saint of academic pursuits in Japan. Known colloquially as Tenjin-san, the market is a great excuse to visit this shrine and see people, especially school children, rubbing the two stone bulls in front of the main hall of the shrine (doing so is said to make one more intelligent). Like the Kobo-san market, this is a great chance to buy used kimono, ceramics, antiques and bric-a-brac, along with food and drink. You’ll also rub shoulders with an interesting assortment of expats and locals.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)