Date: 17 July
Level of participation: 2 - be thankful you’re not chigo
Japanese culture often confuses the outsider, and Kyoto’s multifaceted float parade-come-kimono display is no exception. The procession of yamaboko floats on 17 July remembers the occasion in AD 869 when 66 halberd-carrying dignitaries, each representing a Japanese province, trooped through Kyoto to beseech Gozu Tenno, the god of plague, to give the city a break. It takes up to 40 people to move the teetering temples on wheels. For three mornings from 10 July, you can watch them being built out of huge, carved blocks, some weighing more than 10 tonnes.
The construction over, along with the purification of the portable shrines in the river, Kyoto gets down to the business of celebration. Devotional performances take place, including one by dancers in heron costumes. Gaggles of white-faced teenage girls click through the streets in wooden clogs and yukata (summer kimonos). Residences in the merchant quarter play ‘open house’, offering the chance to see Japanese heirlooms in their original setting.
A star of the parade itself is chigo, a local boy who rides the main yamaboko wearing Shinto robes and a golden phoenix crown. The poor lad has to undergo weeks of purification. Gion Matsuri lasts throughout July but is most colourful in the middle of the month.
Local attractions: the imperial capital until 1868, Kyoto has hundreds of temples and gardens.
More info: Kyoto City Tourist Information (+81 75 343 6655)
See other top festivals in July here.