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Aoi Matsuri Festival 08
An elegant view on Japan's ancient capital
May in Kyoto, besides being the month in which the new leaves of spring burst forth throughout the valley, is the month in which the Aoi Matsuri Festival is held, one of Japan's largest and its most ancient. The festival highlight is the procession on procession May 15th of 600 people dressed in imperial court costumes of the Heian Period (794-1185), but there is a whole lot more to see and experience.
Aoi Matsuri is considered to be one of the oldest festivals in the world. Its origin goes back to the sixth century when a series of severe storms destroyed the all important autumn harvest. A diviner determined that the deities of Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines were angry at the disrespect of the people. To quiet the gods, Emperor Kinmei (540-571) had special rites performed at Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines, Kyoto's two oldest shrines. Magically, the storms came to an end, and from that time on, imperial officials have paid regular visits to the two shrines. The name of the festival comes from the fact that the dark and shiny spiked leaves of the aoi (hollyhock) bush are used in decorating the costumes. At one time, these leaves were believed to have all sorts of powers including protection against lightning and earthquakes and guaranteeing easy childbirth.
Following Kyoto's founding in 794, the first emperor of Kyoto, Kanmu, personally visited both shrines and recognized their deities as protectors of Kyoto. In 807, he officially established the Aoi Matsuri as an annual, imperial event. It quickly established a reputation and soon was referred to as simply the Festival. It reached its most spectacular heights in the middle of the Heian period, during the magnificent reign of Fujiwara regents. Today's festival is, for the most part, a tribute to that time, often known as Japan's Golden Age. Though the festival was not held from the start of the Onin Wars (Japan's civil war of the late 15th century) all the way to the end of the 17th century, it was revived and has continued to be one of Japan's largest and most important festivals.
Beautiful Picturesque Heian Period Procession
The festival procession is made up of two parts: the imperial messenger's retinue and the saio-dai, a young woman who in the Heian period was an imperial princess who headed both of Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines, a system which existed only between 810 and 1200. Today, a young Kyoto woman is chosen to play the role of the saio for the period of the festival. She is the focus of the parade, riding on a palanquin dressed in imperial Heian robes (12 layers in all) and radiating imperial serenity in all directions. The parade is a colorful array of imperially dressed citizens, about 600 in all, who form the public part of the proceedings. There are also private proceedings held within the each shrine, which are open only to those who have been invited. These rituals involve the presentation of an official petition from the emperor and an extended period of gift giving, amongst which there is always a fine horse. Though given in private, the horses later gallop down a special course outside of the main shrine compound.
Though the main focus of the festival has become the procession on the 15th, the festival really begins on the 3rd of the month with an archery display performed on horseback at Shimogamo Shrine. The archery is more than just a display of skill, it is also a purification ritual for the procession route later in the month. Also on the 3rd, the Saio is purified in a ceremony at Kamigamo Shrine. Then on the 5th, there is a horse race held at Kamigamo Shrine between two teams dressed in Heian costumes. Three days before the official procession, on the 12th, the Mikage Matsuri Festival is held between 9:30 and 16:00. Departing in the morning at around 9:30 from Shimogamo Shrine, the official festival priests proceed to Mikage Shrine, where they 'pick up' the gods and carry them on to Shimogamo Shrine. Upon returning to Shimogamo Shrine, a traditional dance and music performance is given. Then finally, on the 15th, the grand procession proceeds from the Imperial Palace and up and around to Kamigamo Shrine. The procession leaves the palace grounds around 10:30 and slowly (very slowly) moves toward Kamigamo Shrine (arriving around 15:30).
Festival Event Calendar
You must take into account that the day of the procession things get really crowded. The best way to appreciate the costumes and the setting, is to go to the Old Imperial Palace early (say around 8:00). In this way you can see people up close, take photos and even chat with the participants. The same rule applies for all the major events. So just go real early and appreciate things back stage and behind the scenes. It will be a lot more memorable that way.
As far as recommended events goes, the events on the 3rd and the 5th are really worth seeing: the crowds are absent and the events important and interesting to watch. As far as the events on the 12th go, it is recommend picking one of the two end points and going there early to appreciate things a bit in advance.
5/1 Kurabe uma-e Ashizoroe Ceremony: before the Kurabe uma Shinji on the 5th, people ride of the horses to check the condition (age, running speed, etc) and decide the race matchings; from 13:00; Kamigamo Shrine; Tel: 781-0011.
5/3 Yabusame Shinji: a man in a traditional costume shoots an arrow riding on a running horse back in full speed; 13:00-15:30; Shimogamo Shrine; Tel: 781-0010.
5/4 Saio dai Misogi (purification) Ritual: the pre-ritual of Aoi Matsuri. The saio dai is chosen and she and her 40 servants have a purification ritual; from 10:00; Kamigamo Shrine; Tel: 781-0011.
5/5 Busha Shinji: one of the very old rituals before the main festival. Priests use bow and arrow to ward off the evil spirits. Other arrow shooting rituals are held; from 11:00; Shimogamo Shrine; Tel: 781-0010.
5/5 Kurabe uma-e Shinji: the ritual was started in the Imperial court. It has been held in Kamigamo Shrine since 1093. The horses for the festival are purified and two horses compete they speed; from 13:00; Kamigamo Shrine; Tel: 781-0011.
5/12 Mikage Festival: the sacred spirit is welcomed to Shimogamo Shrine in prior to the main festival. An elegant Japanese dance and music is performed in the sacred Tadasu no Mori Forest; Shimogamo Shrine; Tel: 781-0010.
Aoi Matsuri Procession Route