Until July 17: Bell Flower Viewing at Tentoku-in, Tofukuji, Kyoto
Tentoku-in is famous for its bell flowers (kikyo), set in a dry landscape garden.
Access: Kyoto City Bus #208, get off at Tofukuji; or Keihan line to Tofukuji.
July 7, Tanabata (Star Festival), nationwide
Celebrates the meeting, just once a year, of two lovers, Kengyu (the star Altair, personified as a cowherd) and Shokujo (Vega, as a weaving girl), who are on the other days separated by the Milky Way. Wishes are written on colorful strips of paper and attached to bamboo poles. The biggest one near Tokyo is held in Hiratsuka (around the station). A good place to visit in Kyoto is the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (special Tanabata dance at 13:30).
July 6-8, Tokyo: Morning-Glory Market in Iriya, Tokyo
The blue or purple morning glories (asagao) are a symbol of summer. You see them everywhere in Japan, potted in alleys in downtown Tokyo, or in the private gardens of Kamakura or Kyoto. Held in the grounds of Shingenji Temple in Taito-ku. Every year 120,000 morning glories change owner at the fair which is held from dawn to dusk.
Access: Iriya Kishimojin (Shingenji Temple), Taito-ku, Tokyo. Hibiya Subway Line to Iriya St., and then walk 1 min.
July 7: Water Festival at Kibune Shrine, Kyoto
At 10:00: prayers to the Deity of Rain. At 13:00, Tanabata.
Access: Eizan Railway from Demachi-yanagi to Kibuneguchi.
July 9-10, Tokyo: Hozuki-Ichi (Ground-Cherry Fair), Sensoji, Tokyo
Bright orange Hozuki plants are on sale in the grounds of Sensoji in Asakusa
Access: 5 minute walk from Asakusa Station on Ginza Line.
July 9-11: Narita Gion Matsuri, Narita
Floats, carts, and portable shrines parade through Narita. Festival highlight is the parade on the last day when floats are pulled up the steep slope to Shinshoji's main hall.
Access: JR Narita or Keisei Narita St.
July 9-12: Pottery Market at Senbon Shakado Temple, Kyoto
Market from 10:00 to 20:00. On the 10th at 14:00 a "Pottery Memorial Ceremony" will be held.
Access: Kyoto City Bus #50, get off at Kamishichiken.
July 14, Nachi (Wakayama Pref.): Fire festival, Kumano Nachi Shrine
During the annual festival of the Nachi Shrine, twelve portable shrines are purified by fire (torches) and water, in the form of the mist spraying from the Nachi waterfall.
Access: At Kumano Nachi Taisha, 30 min by bus to Takii-mae from Kii-Katsuura on the Kisei main line.
July 15, Fukuoka: Hakata Gion Yamakasa, Kushida Shrine
Floats decorated with large dolls are set up in the city from July 1. The festival climaxes with a race (Oiyama) on the 15th, when hundreds of people wearing traditional costumes run with the seven one-ton floats through the city. Spectators standing along the streets throw water on them as they pass.
Access: Kushida Jinja, 10 min from JR Hakata Station.
July 16-24, Kyoto: Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine
Originates in 9th c. when the festival was first held as protection against an epidemic. On July 17, gorgeously decorated floats are pulled through the center of Kyoto. The night(s) before the 17th, the floats are lit up with lanterns in the locations where they have been built up (Yoi Matsuri). There are two types of floats: hoko are towers on wheels, with a mast sometimes reaching to a height of 30 or 40 meters, pulled by a large number of persons; yama are smaller and carried by long poles on the shoulders of a group of bearers. See my Gion Festival Dictionary.
Access: central Kyoto (Hankyu Karasuma, Hankyo Shijo Kwaramachi, Keihan Shijo and Sanjo, various subway).
July 22, Miyajima (Hiroshima): Itsukushima Jinja Kangen Sai
Main festival (Kangensai) of the Itsukushima Shrine on scenic Miyajima island near Hiroshima. During this sea festival, colorful boats with musicians and dancers pass under the famous torii in the water, calling the courtly life of the Heian period to mind. From 16:00-23:00. There is also a lantern parade on the island.
Access: JR Sanyo Line from Hiroshima St to Miyajimaguchi St; 10 min ferry to Miyajima; 10 min walk from pier to shrine.
July 25: Shishigatani Pumpkin Service at Anrakuji, Kyoto
Pumpkin service and public viewing of the temple's treasures; visitors are given cooked pumpkin as a way to keep illness away (500 yen)
Access: Kyoto City Bus #5, get off at Kinrinshakomae; 9:00-15:00.
July 26-29, Kyoto: Mitarashi festival, Shimogamo Shrine
Purification festival dedicated to the goddess of water enshrined at the Shimogamo Shrine, held annually in the 3rd week of July (17:30-22:30). Take off your shoes, receive a candle and wade through the refreshingly cool water to the rack where you can place the candle on. After that, everybody receives a drink of spring water to ensure health in the hot summer.
Access: From Kyoto St bus 205 to Shimogamo Jinja-mae; or 10 min walk from Demachi-Yanagi on the Keihan line.
July 23-24, Nara: Jizo-e
Jizo-bon ceremony at Fukuchi-in (from 17:00) and Jizo-e at other temples, in honor of Jizo Bosatsu, the patron of children.
Access: In Nara-machi.
July 24-25, Osaka: Tenjin Matsuri, Tenmangu Shrine
Greatest festival of Osaka. On the evening of the 25th, a fleet of boats carrying portable shrines proceeds upstream over the Yodo River.
Access: Near Osaka Tenmangu St on the JR Tozai line.
July 31, Kyoto: Sennichi-Mairi at Atago Shrine
The night of the 31st many people walk up Mt Atago to visit the Atago Shrine (home to the Deity of Fire Protection). It is believed such a visit is equivalent to 1,000 ordinary visits. A special ceremony at the shrine starts at 21:00 (and the next morning at 2:00).
Access: Kyoto Bus to Kiyotaki, then a 4 km hike; bring a flashlight.
End of July, Tokyo: Sumida River Fireworks Display
In Sumida Park along the Sumida River. Expect large crowds (about one million) for this most popular of summer fireworks festivals. Some 20,000 rockets are fired from two separate bases along the river, in a competition between rival firework companies.