Japan's Festival Calendar: Kyoto's Jidai Matsuri
Kyoto's Festival of the Ages: Jidai Matsuri 時代祭
by Aliona Jefimova
Jidai Matsuri, or the Festival of the Ages, is celebrated on the 22nd of October and one of the three famous annual Kyoto festivals, along with Aoi Matsuri on the 15th of May and Gion Matsuri on the 17th of July.
Jidai Matsuri has been held annually since 1895, when Kyoto City celebrated the 1,100 anniversary of "Heian-Kyo", or modern Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 until 1868 AD.
To commemorate this event, Heian Jingu Shrine was built. It was modelled after the administration hall of the Imperial Palace.
Heian Jingu is dedicated to two emperors, Emperor Kanmu (737-806) and Emperor Komei (1831-1867). The former transferred the capital to Kyoto and the latter was the last emperor to reside in Kyoto.
What is Jidai Matsuri?
The Festival of the Ages is a large-scale event involving more than 2000 participants dressed in splendid historical costumes. The procession departs from the Kyoto Imperial Palace at 12:00, goes along Karasuma-dori, passes City Hall, and heads towards Heian Jingu Shrine, which is the destination of the procession.
The participants of the procession are dressed in costumes of the main historical periods, starting with the most recent and finishing with the oldest period styles. Each historical era is represented by students acting the part of the most famous people of the time, wearing extremely accurate and expensive costumes specific to that particular period.
Although the general order of the procession has remained the same for decades, there are occasionally some insignificant changes introduced from one year to another.
Order of the procession of Jidai Matsuri
At the beginning is the procession of the Meiji Era. This is the period when Japan opened its borders to Western countries and consequently life in the country changed dramatically.
This is followed by the Royal Army and the patriots of the Meiji Restoration, as well as large number of women dressed in Meiji period costumes performing traditional dances.
The Edo Period (1615-1868) procession comes next. The Edo era, a time of seclusion from the outer world in Japan, is especially loved by Japanese art connoisseurs, as it is the period when genuinely Japanese art styles were developed. The procession of Shogun Tokugawa, who came from Edo to Kyoto annually in order to visit the Emperor on important occasions, is a highlight.
Princess Kazu (the younger sister of the Emperor Komei), the famous nun Rengetsu, Madam Kuranosuke Nakamura (a wife of a wealthy merchant known for winning a kimono contest by wearing a black kimono every year) and many others walk past the onlookers in a grand manner.
Devotees of Edo period arts will be delighted to see the well-known ladies of Gion: Madam Kaji, a celebrated poetess, and her granddaughter Gyokuran. Gyokuran was a wife of Ikeno Taiga, who was one of the most prominent Nanga artists.
While Gyokuran was a great painter in her own right and often helped her husband, there are many jokes about their daily life and they are known as an eccentric couple that attracted much attention in the 18th century.
Another prominent figure is Izumo-no-Okuni, a priestess who performed unusual dances and performances on the riverbanks of the Kamogawa River in Kyoto. These dances later developed into theatrical art that is known today as Kabuki.
Great Lords & Ladies of the Jidai Matsuri
The prominent lords Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga represent the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The splendid kimonos worn by ladies of the Heian Period are popular among women.
Along with court ladies wearing luxurious kimonos, women from Ohara and Katsura, who made their living by carrying their goods to markets in town and wore costumes quite different women of a higher class. The former carried flowers on their heads, whereas the latter wrapped their hair with a cloth.
Children wearing butterfly wings and clothes similar to imaginary birds and two sacred carriages for the Emperors Komei and Kanmu, attended by the priests of the Heian Shrine, end the procession.
The Jidai Festival reminds one of a time machine that carries the observer more than 1200 years back in time in less than three hours. It is a grand event that proves the Japanese are proud of their history and traditions.
For those who cannot read Japanese, it is helpful to have a Japanese friend to explain the order of the procession.
As the Jidai Festival is very popular and can get crowded, it is recommended to reserve a seat in advance. The Kyoto City International Foundation (2-1 Torii-cho, Awataguchi, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8536) offers free special seat reservations for foreign residents in Kyoto prior to the event.
Getting To the Jidai Matsuri
The nearest subway station to the start of the Jidai Matsuri is Marutamachi Station at the south west corner of the Imperial Palace. Buses #204 and #202 also go along Marutachi Dori.