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Taking place on 15 May annually, Aoi Matsuri was originally called the “Kamo Festival”. Aoi Matsuri is known as “Hollyhock Leaf Crest Festival” in English. According to ancient historical records, the festival can be traced back as early as CE 539 – 571, during the ruling of Emperor Kinmei. The festival is not only known as the oldest festival in Japan, but also one of the oldest festivals still celebrated in the world.

The ladies in traditional costumes and make up

The festival’s main attraction is a large parade in Kyoto, in which over 500 people dressed in the aristocratic style of the Heian Period (794-1185) walk from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines. Aoi is Japanese for Hollyhock, and the festival is named after the Hollyhock leaves that are worn by the members of the procession.

Woman with Aoi (Hollyhock leaves)

Aoi Matsuri is jointly celebrated by two Kamo shrines – Shimogama Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine which are both located in the north of Kyoto.

One of the celebrated shrines

Also featured in the procession are huge decorated carts pulled by oxen with orange-colored yokes and costumed riders on horseback that shoot arrows at three targets 100 meters apart while riding at a full gallop. The festival gets its name from the aoi or hollyhock leaves carried by the participants.

Man on Horseback

The procession of Aoi Matsuri starts at about 10:30 in the morning and arrives at Shimogamo Shrine at about 11:00 where there are various ceremonies taking place. The ceremonies are said to take up about 2 hours before the procession continues its journey to Kamigamo Shrine. The procession begins at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and ends at Kamigamo Shrine.

The procession’s route

Aoi Matsuri’s procession in costumes like those worn by nobles and members of the Imperial court in the Heian Period

The festival dates back to a time when Kyoto was often ravaged by floods and local people asked the gods for help. When relief appeared the people showed their thanks by throwing a festival. The central act of the festival is the offering of aoi leaves as a sign of respect to gods of Kamigamo and Shimogama shrines.

Aoi Matsuri’s procession

Predating Kyoto’s establishment as the national capital in 794, the Aoi Matsuri began in the 7th century, although its precise origins are uncertain. There were most likely natural disasters occurring that were believed to be caused by the deities of the Kamo Shrines. After the Emperor made offerings to the gods, the disasters subsided and a tradition was begun. The festival’s official name remains Kamo Matsuri, because of its association with the shrines.

Saio, the princess is taken through the procession on a palanquin

The festival grew in prominence so that during the Heian Period the word festival became synonymous with the Aoi Matsuri.Traditionally, the Saio was a young female member of the imperial family who served as the high priestess of the Kamo Shrines. During festivals, the Saio performed rituals at the shrines. In the modern era, a different unmarried woman from Kyoto is selected each year to serve as Saio. She must go through purification ceremonies before the festival, and is taken through the procession on a palanquin.

Nowadays, the massive procession illustrates the high regard in which the festival would have been held. There are men on horseback, giant bouquets of flowers, ornately decorated ox drawn carts, and a large retinue of women in kimono accompanying the year’s Saio.

Ox Carriage

And finally, here is a short preview of Aoi Matsuri recorded last year. The video will give you a general idea of what to expect. Have Fun!!

Aoi Matsuri Preview (2013)

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