AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (23) Japan’s most elegant festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 15, 2007

If you’ve ever wondered what a living tradition more than a millenium old might look like, there would have been no better chance to find out than at the Aoi Festival today in Kyoto, the first of the three major festivals held annually in the city and commonly regarded as the oldest and most elegant in the country.

Officially called the Kamo Festival after the two Kamo shrines, it dates from the 6th century when there were a series of poor harvests in the area. The emperor sent an emissary to pray for a bountiful harvest. Later, imperial princesses substituted for the emperor, and today the festival is a recreation of the procession of those princesses to the two shrines.

The procession departs from the Kyoto Imperial Palace at 10:30 a.m. with a total of 511 participants and 40 oxen. The participants are dressed in the clothing of nobles during the late Heian Period (794-1185). The festival gets its name from the aoi, or wild ginger, decorating the headgear of the marchers, the oxcarts, and houses along the procession route.

They proceed across the Aoi Bridge to the Shimo-Gamo shrine (nice website!), where they conduct a Shinto ceremony. When this is completed, they proceed to the Kami-Gamo shrine to conduct a similar ceremony. The festival is held on the 15th every year and always attracts large numbers of sightseers. This year, Kyoto Police estimated that the crowd reached 32,000 at noon.

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