The Aoi Matsuri (葵祭) is one of Kyoto’s three most famous festivals (along with the Gion Matsuri and the Jidai Matsuri) and takes place every May 15th. There are a number of ceremonies held around the Shimogamo Shrine, but 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 Gosho Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines. Aoi is the Japanese word for Hollyhock, and the festival is named after the Hollyhock leaves that are worn by all the participants of the 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.
An ornately decorated ox drawn cart
The festival grew in prominence so that during the Heian Period the word festival became synonymous with the Aoi Matsuri. 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.
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.
We arrived at the Gosho Imperial South Gate around 9 am, almost one and a half hour before the start of the parade. Most of the good spots for photo taking have already been reserved long ago. This is a popular festival and it attracts photographers from around the country.
We ended up choosing a spot located before the actual start of the parade, near the place the parade gets into formation, outside of the Palace gate. It proved to be a good spot. We then had to wait for about an hour for the start of the parade, discussing with some of the participants.
As the parade started under a blue sky and powerful sun, people stopped chatting and got in line, ready with all the required accessories. The parade launched and everyone suddenly tried to get photos at the same time of the same subjects — this is where we understand the long wait for a good spot! This was actually a good location and I felt satisfied with the photos taken. Also, mainly because of the heat and the fact that I was tired, I called it a day and went back home. But with more energy, there are probably at least two more opportunities to take photos of the parade, at the Kamo Shrines The next time, I will probably post myself at the arrival area at the Shimogamo Shrine, for some variation.
For your information, the parade starts at 10:30 at the southern gate of the Imperial Palace, and crosses the river in front of Shimogamo Shrine at 11:15. Ceremonies are performed within the shrine for about two hours before the procession departs for Kamigamo Shrine, where the head of the parade arrives around 15:30. Watching the entire procession pass by, from beginning to end, takes about one hour.
Gosho Imperial Palace
There are several web pages dedicated to the Aoi Matsuri Festival.
Here is a selection: