Kyoto’s oldest festival
Alongside the Gion Festival and the Festival of the Ages, the Aoi Festival is one of the three main festivals in Kyoto. As Kyoto’s oldest festival, an elegant procession consisting of people appearing as the over-500-strong Heian nobility leave the Kyoto Imperial Palace, pass Shimogamo Temple and head for Kamigamo Shrine over a distance of about 8km. The festival originated approximately 1400 years ago with a religious festival held to pray for a great harvest, and is currently held annually on May 15th. Over the past 1400 years, it has been held as a national event, and it is a valuable festival which retains many dynastic customs. It is known as the Hollyhock Festival since leaves of the plant are strewn all over the clothes, the carriages and even the horses. At Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines, the Imperial Messenger reads out a ritual prayer and gives offerings to the gods.
A procession like a Heian picture scroll
The highlight of the festival is the Roto-no-Gi procession in which a keiibishi (an officer representing the Imperial police and court administration during the Heian Era), the kurazukai (a courtier bearing the message to the gods), the carriage transporting the highest official in the center of the parade in the form of the Imperial Messenger, the Saio-Dai wearing 12 gorgeous layers of traditional robes weighing as much as 30 kg, and other members of the Heian nobility create an elegant dynastic parade with a total of 500 people and horses. The Shato-no-Gi ceremony is performed when the procession arrives at both shrines and involves the Imperial Messenger reading out the ritual prayer. And once offerings are given, sacred horses are led about and a musical offering to the gods known as the Azuma Asobi is performed by dancers. The Saio-Dai was once an unmarried daughter of the Emperor, but currently she is selected from a group of female residents of Kyoto recommended by the three main families of the tea ceremony. Locally, the annual choice for Saio-Dai becomes a lively topic of discussion. Free seating at the departure point of the Kyoto Imperial Palace or Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines has also been established.