Japan's Festival Calendar: May
Aoi Festival, Kyoto 葵祭
Kyoto's Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) is one of the three major annual festivals in the city along with the Gion Festival and the Jidai Festival. The name aoi meaning hollyhock comes from the leaves which decorate the carriages and participants in the festival and are believed to ward off evil.
The Aoi Matsuri is held on May 15 and consists mainly of a procession by around 500-600 people dressed in Heian Period costume, including the elaborate clothes of the Heian aristrocracy. The festival begins at the Gosho Imperial Palace at around 10.30am, moves past Demachiyanagi at about 11.15am and arrives at Shimogamo Shrine at 11.40am.
Here various shrine rites occur including galloping horses within the shrine. At around 2.20pm the procession moves on again arriving at Kamigamo Shrine at 3.30pm, here more high-speed and highly-skilled horsemanship occurs on the large grassy area outside the main shrine buildings including a demonstration of yabusame - horseback archery. The festival is winding down by 5pm.
What are the origins of Aoi Matsuri?
Like many festivals throughout Japan, Aoi Matsuri began as a series of rites to appease the angry kami (gods) of the Kamo shrines who were thought to have brought disease to the area of Yamato sometime in the 6th century. A galloping horse was part of the Emperor's offerings to the gods and thus horse riding remains a central rite of the festival.
By the time the capital moved to Kyoto from Nara, the festival was firmly established as an annual event but was discontinued in later periods due to war and disruption in the capital. Re-established for a time in the later Edo Period, the Aoi Matsuri only became a permanent fixture after World War II and now draws thousands of visitors each year. Because it was originally an imperial festival, ordinary people were not allowed to take part for many years when the festival first began.
Protocol of the Aoi Festival
The Aoi Matsuri is lead by an Imperial Messenger on horseback followed by ox carts called Gosho-guruma, cows and horses. A young woman is chosen each year as the Saio-Dai - this woman was originally a member of the Emperor's family and along with the Imperial Messenger performs the ritual at the two shrines. The Saio-Dai is transported in an elaborate, wheeled palanquin. The woman chosen as the Saio-Dai is ritually purified in the Mitarashi River at Shimogamo Shrine on May 10. On May 12 the Mikage Matsuri is a solemn ceremony at Shimogamo Shrine to welcome the kami to the festival proper.
Enjoying the Aoi Matsuri
Today the Aoi Matsuri is very much on the tourist calendar of events in Kyoto and gets very, very crowded. The best places to view the procession are on the bridges at Demachiyanagi and Kitaoji. Both the Shimo and Kami-gamo (lower and higher) shrines are beautiful places to watch the horse riding events, with the highlight the archery at Kamigamo Shrine.
The irises at Ota Shrine, close to Kamigamo Shrine are often in bloom at this time of year and are worth a visit if you have attended the events at Kamigamo. Walk left out of the main entrance to the shrine.