Japan is host to countless festivals all throughout the year. Kyoto, being one of Japan’s most traditional cities, holds a different festival nearly every month and is renowned for having three great festivals every year. If you are in Kyoto during May, the festival to see is the Aoi Matsuri (葵祭).
Kyoto’s famous Aoi Matsuri, or “Hollyhock Festival,” is a ceremonial festival put on by the city’s two Kamo Shrines, Kamigamo Shrine(上賀茂神社) and Shimogamo Shrine(下賀茂神社). The festival is actually said to be the oldest festival still celebrated in Kyoto today. The origin of the festival dates all the way back to the year 567. The name “Hollyhock”, comes from the seemingly endless hollyhock leaves that are used as ornaments and decorations throughout the entire festival period, as hollyhock is symbolizes purity and is said to protect from natural disasters.
When the festival first began, there were a series of storms and floods which resulted in poor harvest and a nation-wide shortage of food to sell and eat; this lead to a famous fortune teller claiming that the devastation was the doing of the Kamo Family gods. The people put on a ritual to try and appease the gods and the storms stopped, crops began to grow again and the nation-wide food shortage came to an end. It seemed that the gods were pleased with the ritual and, from then on, the people of Kyoto re-enacted this historical event in the form of the Aoi Matsuri. The name Aoi Matsuri is actually a misnomer the original name of the festival being Kamo-no-matsuri, though most tend to favor the modernized version of it.
Traditionally, the Aoi Matsuri was a high-class event held for the Kamo Family and the Imperial Court, as nobles came out to watch as spectators. Nowadays, the festival is open to everyone and visitors from all over the country come to Kyoto to catch a glimpse of the various traditional events that showcase the elegant Heian Court culture.
The official day of the festival is held on the May 15th every year. However, the days from the beginning of the month leading up to the 15thhold various rituals and festivities that are vital to the main events of the Aoi Matsuri.
Main Events Leading Up to the 15th
May 1st 13:00 at Kamigamo Shrine: Kamo Kurabe Uma Ashizoroe Horse Racing Ceremony (競馬会足汰式)
Considered by many to be one of Kyoto’s most historic and cultural events, the Kamo Kurabe Uma Ashizoroe Horse Racing Ceremony is the first event to kick start the Aoi Festival. The event is intended to be a ritual to determine the official race pairing for the actual Kurabe event on the 5th of May. The pairing is decided by checking each horse’s age and their speed in order to have the perfect match on the main race day. It is the perfect chance for visitors to watch a heart-racing event with riders dressed in the traditional Heian period garments.
May 3rd 13:00 to 15:30 at Shimogamo Shrine: Yabusame Shinji ritual (流鏑馬神事)
This event is meant to be one of purification rituals for the festival and is held in the tadasu-no-mori, or the Tadasu Forest, on the Shimogamo shrine grounds.
Combining horseback riding and archery, this is one of my all-time favorite events of the festival. Yabusame (流鏑馬), or horseback archery, is one of Japan’s most traditional sports—and also one of the hardest. In order to be considered a yabusame rider, one has to undergo harsh and strenuous training with one of Japan’s few yabusame masters. The riders must stand up and maintain their balance while riding on top of a galloping horse while shooting arrows to try to successfully hit various targets. They use the traditional Japanese long-bow from Kyūdō （弓道）rather than the smaller western bow used in normal archery, which makes maintaining a strong grip on the arrow even more difficult while on the horse.
The archers wear traditional aristocratic costumes during the ritual, which cannot be seen anywhere else. The event is highly popular with visitors from all over Japan.
May 4th 10:00 at Kamigamo Shrine: Saio-dai Purification Ritual（斎王代禊の儀）
This is one of the most vital parts to the festival in which the leading role, the Saio-dai, and her 40 handmaidens purify themselves before the main procession event. The Saio-dai traditionally was a young, unmarried woman from the Japanese imperial family who served as the high priestess of the two Kamo Shrines. These days, the Saio-dai is not a member of the imperial family, but a young, unmarried daughter who is chosen from one of the old traditional Kyoto families to serve as the Saio-dai.
Originally, the purification ritual took place along the Kamo River, but in this day and age the purification takes place in one of the Kamo shrines, the exact shrine alternating each year.
May 5th 11:00 at Shimogamo Shrine: Busha Shinji (歩射神事)
A type of exorcism ritual used to cleanse and purify the path of precession of the Aoi Festival. Priests will use traditional Japanese long-bows to shoot arrows at targets to ward off evil spirits.
There are various rituals held at the event, each holding a different purpose for warding off the evil spirits.
May 5th 10:00 & 14:00 at Kamigamo Shrine: Kamo Kurabe Uma Main Event (賀茂競馬)
Continuing the first day’s events, the pairs of horses complete to see who is fastest. The jockeys wear traditional Noh costumes. The costumes themselves make this an event you do not want to miss. This ritual is so famous that is was written about in famous old Japanese tales and continues to be a leading event for the festival.
After the races, there will be a ceremony starting at 14:00 to congratulate the winners and make preparations for the next day’s purification rituals.
May 12th 09:30 at Shimogamo Shrine and Mikage Shrine: Mikage Festival (御蔭祭)
A ritual performed to call and welcome the divine spirit to watch over the festivities and ceremonies on the 15th. The priests and others participants in the ceremony gather for a purification ritual at Shimogamo Shrine. There are a few events to prepare for that day’s ceremony before the procession begins and heads for Mikage Shrinein the forest of Mt. Hiei. In the past, they would walk the entire way to the shrine, but these days the procession only goes halfway through tadasu-no-mori before taking a chartered bus to Mt. Hiei.
When the ritual members arrive at Mt. Hiei, the procession to Mikage Shrine begins again. Once at the shrine, this part of the event is not open to the public to protect its sanctity and because the newly materialized spirit is considered aggressive and quite dangerous. After this ritual, the procession heads back Shimogamo Shrine. A ritualistic dance, called Azuma Asobi, is then performed to signal the arrival of the divine spirit before transferring it into the main hall of Shimogamo Shrine.
May 15th 10:30 to 15:30 at Kyoto Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine: Roto-no-Gi(路頭の儀) and Shato-no-Gi (社頭の儀)
This is the main event and it is broken into two sections: the Roto-no-Gi, and the Shato-no-Gi. Roto-no-gi is a long procession of chosen participants dressed in Heian-style clothing and the Shato-no-gi is two rituals overseen by the chokushi or the Imperial Messenger.
This part of the festival begins with the Roto-no-Gi. Leading the entire parade is the Imperial Messenger, followed by two oxcarts, four cows, thirty-six horses, and six hundred people, all of which are dressed in traditional Heian period apparel decorated with aoi leaves. The festival starts at 10:30 at the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds before moving to Shimogamo Shrine and finishes at 15:30 at Kamigamo Shrine.
When the procession arrives at both of the shrines, the Shato-no-Gi begins and the Saio-dai and Imperial Messenger each perform their respective rituals. The Saio-dai plays a simple role and pays her respects to the gods, while the Imperial Messenger chants the imperial rescript praising the gods and requests their continued favor. A ritualistic dance called the azuma-asobi is also performed as an offering.
Two long weeks of festivities finally come to an end and the experiences are truly one of a kind. If you are in Kyoto during the first few weeks of May, please stop by the various events taking place for the Aoi Matsuri for a magnificent experience that you won’t soon forget.
Additional Information: https://kyoto-design.jp/special/aoi
Tickets for seats at the main events at each shrine and palace & more information: https://www.kyokanko.or.jp/aoi/kanran.html (Japanese)
Article originally published on Izanau, May 9, 2016. Edited from original version.