Highs and bows in Kyoto
Highs and bows in Kyoto

Like thousands of butterflies, each a different pattern and colour from the next, the bows bob and float through the streets, perched on the backs of Kyoto's young women.

Their wearers, dressed in yukata - a light summer kimono - and wooden sandals, cool themselves with fans and dab their foreheads with cloth.

It's July 16 and thousands of people from Kyoto and its surrounds are cramming into the city's famous district of Gion for Yoiyama festival, part of the month-long celebration of Gion Matsuri, which peaks with a parade of floats the following morning. As we move closer to the centre, the crowd gets denser, until we are wedged tight among thousands of bodies slowly edging forward.

Traditional dress is popular with Japanese youth and the display of colour and pattern is stunning. But, like anywhere in Japan, the cultural capital is not immune to commercialism.

Plastic fans covered in advertisements are distributed through the crowd, many girls skewering them into their bows.

A teenager dressed entirely in the metallic green lycra of fast-food chain Mos Burger's superhero jumps out at a group of girls who scream and giggle before he takes off and leaps on to the shoulders of my 190cm-tall brother, clinging on like a gremlin as we try to get away.

It's the biggest event of the year for Kyoto and people are out to have fun.

It's also the middle of Japan's summer and even as the evening is closing in the tropic-like heat does not relent.

Parents lift toddlers on to their shoulders to escape the pressing crowd and get a better view of the main attractions of the night - the parade floats.

Lanterns light up the extravagant adornments on dozens of floats positioned in the streets as people come to see them, buy good-luck charms and, of course, take millions of photos.

"This way," one of our party says and we all push sideways through the pressing bodies, like swimmers cutting across a rip, until we reach a smaller side street with fewer people.

Kyoto's famous network of small streets proves more rewarding as we meander along, picking up small plates of barbecued takoyaki - a delicious Osakan specialty best described as an octopus doughnut - and browsing through stalls of ornaments and yukata. Black fabric with swirls of pink flowers catches my eye and before I know it, a Japanese grandmother has me in the back of her garage-turned-drapery folding and knotting me into the yukata with metres of ribbon as she issues directions in Japanese for me to turn this way or that and put my arms up and down. An obi, a kind of broad stiff sash with a big bow on the back, finishes the look.

Once I'm trussed up, she steps back to admire the handiwork before leading me back out on to the street to show me off to my companions. We move on and rejoin the masses of people in the main streets, my obi drawn into a procession of butterflies towards the red glow of the next lantern-lit float.

The next day, we rejoin the crowds flocking into the city to watch the slow parade through the streets.

Known as yamaboko, the floats are about 6m high and covered in textiles and sculptures. Children in costume and musicians sit on the top levels as they move through the streets.

The 1100-year-old festival, based around the Yasaka-jinja Shrine, started when floats from the shrine were paraded through the city to ward off an epidemic. It is still considered one of the biggest events in the Japanese calendar, with national news coverage of the float parade.

Once the float has made its slow, creaking turn through an intersection, accompanied by the "ooohs" and "ahhs" of the crowd and a wave of arms holding up cameras and smartphones, we make our way through small streets and up the hill to the Kiyomizudera temple.

During Gion Matsuri, many of the traditional homes display their most prized antiques in windows and invite guests into houses to see more.

As we meander from the city centre towards the famous hilltop temple, we gaze at displays and stop for green tea and mochi, a kind of dumpling filled with sweet azuki beans.

Keen to see the extraordinary costumes of geisha, I had been let down by guidebooks telling me they were a rare sight because of their general secrecy, as well as declining numbers. We were happily surprised to glimpse a few young women in maiko (apprentice geisha) costume, walking through the streets, enjoying the holiday and occasionally stopping to pose for photographs with tourists.

Sadly, at this festival there were very few non-Japanese tourists wandering the streets of Kyoto during its biggest celebration.

Despite being far from areas of Japan affected by the tsunami and nuclear disasters, many international visitors had avoided the beautiful city.

"Thank you for coming," one shopkeeper tells us. "No one comes this year."

The West Australian

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