Aoi Festival is one of the most historical, valuable and prestigious festivals in Japan. It is called a festival, but it is actually somewhere between a festival and a ritual. And it is not one single festival, but consists of several related events. For those who planning to be in Kyoto on May 15th, this is a great opportunity to see and feel Kyoto’s culture and history through Aoi Festival. However, as mentioned before, Aoi Festival has a few more related events before the actual festival on the 15th, more specifically there are events on May 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 12th. All of them are very prestigious and esteemed, so be sure to take a look.
Kurabeuma Ashizoroeshiki at Kamigamo Shrine – May 1st
This is an event prior to the horse racing ritual conducted on May 5th at Kamigamo Shrine. At Kurabeuma Shizoroeshiki, horses that will run for race show up and are analyzed for quality by checking age and speed. Kurabeuma Ashizoroeshiki will start at Kamigamo Shrine at around 13:00.
Yabusame Ritual at Shimogamo Shrine – May 3rd
Yabusame Shrine Ritual is conducted to wish for a safe procession of the Aoi Festival. Yabusame is a style of shooting arrows, where the shooter rides a horse and releases arrows into targets. Since both hands are needed to shoot the arrow, it is quite dangerous and advanced. According to old documents, Yabusame was conducted here at Shimogamo Shrine as early as 457, and riding gear from ancient times has been found in Tadasu Forest in Shimogamo Shrine. The archers for this event were mainly high ranking officers from Konoenofu, which was in charge of security. Currently, riders from Ogasawara School who have passed traditional archery techniques from generation to generation conduct Yabusame on May 3rd. This event will start at 13:00.
Saiodai Misogi Ritual at Shimogamo Shrine – May 4th
Saio was the title of an unmarried woman chosen to serve Ise Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine or Shimogamo Shrine, and currently the Aoi Festival’s procession is centered around the Saio. On May 4th, an unmarried lady who is chosen to play this role, called Saiodai and other 50 ladies who join her group will purify themselves and wish for safety. This ritual is held at Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine alternately and this year, Shimogamo Shrine will be in charge. It will start at 10:00.
Busha Ritual at Shimogamo Shrine – May 5th
This ritual is also related to arrows. Just like the Yabusame Ritual held at Shimogamo Shrine, this ritual is also held to wish for safety, not from the back of horse, but from the ground. The Busha ritual consists of four different styles: 1. Hikimeshiki: the shooters will make a sound with their bows to purify evil vibes 2. Yagoshiki: the shooters release arrows over the Romon wall 3. Omatoshiki: the shooters will fire arrows into the big target and 4. Momoteshiki: the shooters will project arrows consecutively. The ritual will start at 11:00.
Kamo Kurabeuma at Kamigamo Shrine – May 5th
The Kurabeuma ritual at Kamigamo Shrine is possibly the most exciting event related to the Aoi Festival. In this ritual two horse riders race on a straight stretch. The scene, where brave riders wear traditional dancing uniforms and run their horses at full speed with a battle cry, is thrilling. These horses are actually racing horses, which explains the speed. This race will start at 14:00, but other rituals will start from 10:00. It is open to the public for free, but the paid zone (500 yen) has a much better view. Note that Kamo Kurabeuma at Kamigamo Shrine and Busha Ritual at Shimogamo Shrine are held on the same day. Watch the video below for Kurabeuma for those interested.
Mikage Festival at Shimogamo Shrine – May 12th
Mikage Festial is conducted to carry holy spirit from Yase Mikage Shrine, which is located at the foot of Mt. Hiei. This is said to be the oldest procession to carry a goshintai, an object of worship. The procession is formed at 9:00 at Shimogamo Shrine, then moves to the middle of Tadasu Forest (inside the premises) and then goes to Mikage Shrine by car. The actual ritual of transferring the goshintai at this shrine is not open to public. At around 16:00, the procession comes back to Shimogamo Shrine and a traditional dance called Azumaasobi no Mai is performed in front of a holy horse. After the performance, traditional music is played.
Aoi Festival at Kyoto Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine – May 15th
This is the highlight of the show. Why is it called Aoi Festival? It is because the leaf of Aoi (hollyhock) is used to decorate all the carriages and costumes. Every year, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine provide these leaves to Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the whole procession starts. The origin of this festival dated back to about 1400 years ago. It was conducted to wish for a large harvest when devastating rain and wind struck the country. At this time, the ritual of horse racing also started. Although there were a few periods when the procession could not be held, this national event has been passed down from generation to generation.
Mainly there are two different processions, the main group and the Saio group. All of the participants are wearing gorgeous aristocratic traditional clothes from the Heian Period (794 – 1185).
1. Nonojiris: 6 horse riders lead the procession. These riders are the ones who race their horses for Kamo Kurabeuma ritual held at Kamigamo Shrine on May 5th.
2. Kebiishi no sakan: The military officer in charge of the law enforcement, 6th rank*.
3. Kebiishi no jou: The magistrate officer in charge of security, 5th rank.
4. Yamashirotsukai: A civil officer in charge of Yamashiro District. Both Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrine are located in this district, outside of central Kyoto, thus he joins as a guard.
5. Goheibitsu: A chest to carry gift to Gods at both Kamigamo & Shimogamo Shrine.
6. Kuraryo no shisho: A civil officer who is responsible to manage the goods belonged to an emperor, 7th rank.
7. Meryotsukai: A military officer who is in charge of horses, 6th rank.
8. Gissha: An oxcart. It used to carry an imperial envoy.
9. Ouma: These two horses runs at Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrine. Each horse has 4 servants.
10. Wa-gon: A Wa-gon, a traditional Japanese strings instrument, which belonged to an emperor.
11. Maibito: A military officer who is good at dancing, 5th rank. Maibito is accompanied by 6 servants.
12. Beijyu: 7 military officers, 5th rank. They will sing and pray at Kamigamo & Shimogamo Shrine.
13. Kurazukai: A military & civil officer, 5th rank, from the ministry in charge of the belongings of the imperial family. At the Aoi Festival, he carries an official document, which is served in front of Gods.
14. Chokushi: Chokushi is the envoy of the emperor. He is the highest ranked officer in the procession and the most important figure. However, currently Chokushi, who is still employed at the Imperial Palace at Tokyo, does not join the procession. Therefore a substite acts as Chokushi and rides on a beautifully decorated horse.
15. Hikiuma: A horse that Chokushi will ride on the way back.
16. First Furyugasa: A large umbrella decorated with seasonal flowers.
17. Second Furyugasa: Another big umbrella but decorated differently from the first one.
1. Myobu: Myobu is a court lady. This particular lady is a highly ranked and has a decorated parasol.
2. Nyojyu: A court lady who is in charge of food.
3. Saiodai: Saio is a female member of imperial family and was chosen to serve the festival. Currently, Saio is played by an unmarried lady, who is not related to imperial family. “dai” part of Saiodai means “acting-“. She is obviously star of this group.
4. Munanorionna: A shrine maiden accompanies Saiodai. There are 6 in total, and each of them ride a horse.
5. Kurododokorobeiju: The civil officers belonged to Kurododokoro ministry which is in charge of items and accounting of Saio. They play instruments.
6. Gissha: An oxcart for Saiodai’s group. This particular cart is decorated with hollyhock, Judas tree, cherry petals and mandarin orange.
*The smaller the number is, the higher the position.