#aoimatsuri #shimogamojinja #kamigamojinja #gosho


Aoi Matsuri is one of the three most important festivals held in Kyoto along with Gion and Jidai Matsuri. The Japanese festivals are connected with Shintoism traditions. Also Aoi Festival has its roots from Shintoism and it is celebrated in Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines. The origin of this festival was to appease the gods of Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines, sometimes used to stop famines after natural disasters, which devastated the harvest. In fact in ancient time its name was Kamo Festival, indicating the two shrines. The festival started in the 6th century under the Emperor Kinmei (531-571). It is said to be the oldest in the world. In the 9th century, during Heian Period, it commenced with the foundation of Kyoto as the Imperial city, and the two shrines became the protectors of the new Miyako (Imperial City). The Kamo Festival was established as an annual imperial event.

Traditional costumes. Waiting for the start.

Now, on the 15th of May every year, a procession of people dressed in Heian era traditional costumes starts from Gosho, Imperial Park, at 10.30, and walk to the two Kamo shrines.

Before this main event of the festivals, there are other ceremonies held in both Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines. Every year a “Saio-dai”, is chosen to be the most important woman “heroin” in the parade, like a princess. Originally Saio was a member of the Emperor`s family, and she was a priestess at Shimogamo Shrine. She was in charge for purification rituals and to represent the Emperor at the parade. Today an unmarried Kyoto woman is chosen to play this role. She has to wear the “junimai”, twelve layers of silk kimono. The weight is 30 kilo! But she is so beautiful in her colourful kimono, sat down elegantly on the palanquin! The Imperial Messenger leads the parade on horseback. The whole experience brings you back in time.

Saio-dai, the main woman of the festival

On May 1st, I went to Kamigamo Shrine to see one of the pre-festivals of Aoi Matsuri. It is called the “Kamo Kurabe Uma Ashizoroe” Ceremony. It started with the purification of the horse’s legs with pure water from a stream in the precincts of the shrine. Then the condition of the horses are checked for the next more important festival called “Kamo Kurabe Uma”, which is held on May 5th. It was very sunny, and it was pleasant to stay outside, looking at the horse training. Then, after the horses have been walked through the pathway to familiarise themselves to the terrain, the race started. It was difficult to take photos with my camera because the horses’ speed reached at around 70km/h. It was powerful and fast! The riders wear traditional Noh costumes only on May 5th.

At Kamigamo Shrine, May 1st

Also in Shimogamo Shrine there is a very special horse race ceremony, called “Yabusame Shiji”, in which the riders shoot arrows at targets. They do so while galloping at a very high speed! This festival is held on the 3rd of May.

On 15th I went early to Gosho, to get a good position to watch the parade. A cart was prepared with wisteria decorations. Some children were getting ready for the long walk through the city. About 500 people participate. A black cow was quiet and patient. The horses were a bit nervous. The riders in beautiful costumes were whispering kind words. I like to look at those details. It was very hot but finally, the procession started. Slowly they move on in a line. The walls of the Imperial Palace, with the trees around, were a perfect setting to the parade in colourful traditional dresses and tools. The Saio-dai and the other women in kimonos had long hair, and they were spectacular.

The “aoi”, hollyhock leaves is the main decoration. You can see them in people’s hair, clothes, carts, on the cows and horses. It was believed the hollyhock had a special power against bad spirits and especially natural calamities. One of the oldest festival in the world, and important part of Kyoto-jin (people from Kyoto) life, took its name from a type of plant. The leaf shape reminds a heart.
Thinking about this and how romantic it is, I continued to have my time slipped away from me as I follow the parade.

Other three pre-festivals are held at Shimogamo Shrine: