Aoi Festival – a Must-See Parade of the Medieval Imperial Court in Kyoto



Aoi Festival, one of Kyoto’s three major festivals, reminds me of a chapter from the Tale of Genji (源氏物語: Genji-Monogatari), a classic Japanese work written in the 11th century. It is often said to be the first novel in Japanese literature (or even in the world), and the story develops around the life of the main character – Hikaru Genji (光源氏), the son of a Japanese emperor and his concubine. It also concentrates on Genji’s romantic life, and inner conflicts of the women Genji had an affair with. The ninth chapter which name is “Aoi (葵)” is famous for its detailed depiction of the procession at Aoi Festival. In the story, Genji’s wife – “Aoi-no-ue (葵の上)” gets involved in a minor incident at the site of the festival. But some time later, this causes her fatal destiny.

Image courtesy of japanexperterma

The Origin of the Festival

According to some ancient records, the festival dates to the 6th century, about 200 years before the capital relocation from Nara to Kyoto. There was a series of natural disasters that often ruined grain crops and inflicted famine and diseases on people. Diviners thought it was all acts of deities of the Kamo Shrines. So, the emperor sent a special envoy with a religious retinue to the shrines and ordered them to conduct various rituals, including galloping a horse, to appease the deities’ wraths.

In the ninth century, Kamo Shrines were recognized as protectors of Kyoto, and Aoi Festival was annually held as an imperial event. But the grandeur of the festival started to fade in the following Kamakura Period and the Muromachi Period, during which the aristocratic culture was replaced with the samurai culture. And as Japan entered the age of provincial wars of the 16th century, the hundreds-of-year-old procession was discontinued.

The Genroku era (1688-1704) of the Edo Period saw the revival of the Heian parade. After experiencing a partial discontinuation again from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, the festival started to be held from 1953 with the complete revival of the festival procession.

The Kamo Shrines – Great Protectors of Kyoto’s Prosperity

The Kamo Shrines are the twin shrines: Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社) and Kamigamo Shrine (上賀茂神社). These are two of the oldest and most important shrines in Kyoto. Futaba-Aoi (双葉葵: two leafed hollyhock) is the shrines’ traditional crest, which is said to have been the origin of the festival name – “Aoi Festival.” The hollyhock was once believed to protect from natural disasters. In the middle of the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate held the Aoi Festival with high esteem. Some scholars say that Futaba-Aoi may have been used as an original design of “Mitsuba-Aoi (三つ葉葵),” well known as the crest of the Tokugawa clan.Image courtesy of Jun Seita

Festival Breakdown

Image courtesy of Yeowatzup


Yabusame (horse archery) is the Japanese traditional and ritual event of shooting arrows from a galloping horse.

In “Tadasu-no-mori (糺ノ森: Forest of Correction),” a world heritage-listed primeval forest, in the grounds of Shimogamo Shrine, there is a straight course of about 500 meters long for horseback riding. A horse gallops gallantly on the course with an archer in aristocratic or samurai costumes on its back. Each archer spurs the horse for acceleration and shoots arrows at the three targets placed a certain distance apart on the left side along the run. People believe that If the targets are successfully shot, they will enjoy good crop harvests and live a happy life for the whole year.

This equestrian event is held on May 3rd, as part of the Aoi Festival

Image courtesy of Japanexperterna.se

The Heian Parade

This is the festival’s main attraction. Over 600 participants dressed in aristocratic costumes of the medieval times walk stately in a gorgeous procession from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines in about five hours.

Image courtesy of  Chris Gladis

The Imperial Messenger called “chokushi-dai (勅使代) on horseback leads the procession, followed by a large reunite of two ox-drawn carts, four cows, thirty-six horses, and six hundred people dressed in traditional Heian period costumes decorated with aoi (hollyhock) leaves. The procession includes the special priestess called Saio-dai (斎王代) who wears twelve-layer traditional robes called “juni-hitoe (十二単)”.

After reaching each of the shrines, the Imperial Messenger and the Sai-o Priestess conducts a special ritual. The former reads the imperial rescript of the shrines and presents the emperor’s offerings. The latter, representing the emperor, serves to maintain the purity of the whole ritual. Traditionally, Saio-dai was chosen from the sisters or daughters of the emperor to dedicate herself to the shrines. Currently, Saio-dai is a young woman from Kyoto (and from a wealthy family that can pay the high cost of the expensive costumes).

Image courtesy of Japanexperterna.se

Details and Access

• Date: May 15th every year
• Time: 10:30 – 15:30
• Place: The procession starts from the Imperial Palace through Shimogamo Shrine to Kamigamo Shrine.
• Paid Seating Areas: There are some rows of paid seats available along the parade route. You can get a tickets at convenience stores, online from TaBee Japan, or even through some travel agencies.
– Imperial Palace/Shimogamo Shrine
♣ ¥2,700 per person
♣ ¥3,700 per person (with an English audio guide, but only at the Imperial Palace)
– Kamigamo Shrine
♣ ¥1,000 per person
• Reference: Kyoto City Tourist Association (Phone: 075-213-1717/ URL: http://www.kyokanko.or.jp)

• Webpage:
– Shimogamo Shrine
– Kamigamo Shrine

• Access (railroad):
– Kyoto Imperial Palace
♣ A short subway ride (on the Karasuma Subway Line) from JR Kyoto Station to Marutamachi Station or Imadegawa Station (Please note that Imadegawa Station is closer to the entrance gate of the Imperial Palace.)
– Shimogamo Shrine
♣ A 15 minutes’ walk from Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Keihan Line
o Kamigamo Shrine
♣ A 15 minutes’ walk from Kitayama Station on the Karasuma Subway LineImage courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Closing Remarks

Let me get back to the Tale of Genji. In the “Aoi” chapter, Aoi-no-ue (葵の上) or Lady Aoi and Rokujo-no-miyasudokoro (六条御息所) or Lady Rokujo go to see Aoi Festival, where Hikaru Genji (光源氏) takes part in the procession as the Imperial Messenger. The former is Genji’s principal wife, and the latter is a lady of high birth (actually Genji’s lover). Lady Rokujo’s carriage has already taken a good spot for the nice view of her beloved Genji, but Lady Aoi’s servants try to force Lady Rokujo’s carriage out of the spot while knowing it’s her carriage. Lady Rokujo’s carriage finally breaks down. This minor incident blows Lady Rokujo’s self-esteem, and she remains deep in the shock. And she holds a grudge against Genji’s wife.

There is currently no complete and high-quality English translation of the stories yet. I hope some genius will accomplish the feat of translating all the volumes in English. Also, all around the world will love the world’s first romance novel. I wish I could be one of the translators…

Don`t worry if you miss Aoi Festival in Kyoto

When you plan to travel not everyone can make it. Sometimes, you cannot get a vacation when you want, or some periods are too expensive. Or maybe you can only come during certain seasons…

In that case, I have a suggestion for you if you come in summer. If you want to experience the area of Kyoto in summer, why don`t you join to Gion Matsuri in Kyoto! Gion Matsuri is one of the three main festivals in Japan, and it is a must-go event for those in Kyoto in the summer. For more details, check below!


An Ultimate Idea Source for Your Kyoto Stay!

Kyoto is an old capital of Japan and a cultural and historical mecca for everyone who visits this country. It is the most popular city among tourists and a must-see destination indeed. Kyoto boasts over 4000 historical places including shrines, temples, and attracts visitors with its charming atmosphere of an ancient city. This city is great for shopping, bicycling, hiking, museums, galleries, green spaces, and features many famous festivals. In the following article, you will find 100 things and many ideas on how to spend your time in Kyoto! Please, have a look, URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/events/100-things-kyoto-sightseeing-spots-traditional-japanese-events

See More Kyoto Spring Events and Festivals This Year!

Kyoto features different beauty in each season. A lot of people visit Kyoto to enjoy the elegance from canopies of beautiful cherry blossoms that cover the whole city of Kyoto in spring. On the other hand, there are many other spring events to boast and worthy of note. The following article picked up the must-see events in the ancient capital of Japan this spring. Please take a look!

URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/events/popular-kyoto-spring-events-festivals

Sakura in Kyoto

Cherry blossoms are an essential part of Japanese culture. And, viewing cherry blossoms (Hanami) is very popular in Japan during the spring. This is because cherry blossoms, which the Japanese call “Sakura” are stunning in Japan at the time.

If you are planning to visit Japan this spring, and if you want to see more cherry blossoms in another area. I would like you to check the Best cherry blossom spots in Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the best places to see cherry blossom and Japanese culture.

Here`s the link. URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/2566/ 

Kyoto has many beautiful spots to see Cherry blossoms. However, other areas also have an excellent place for hanami, especially in Tokyo!

If you are in Tokyo around spring and looking for a place to see cherry blossom. Why don`t you check this “Cherry Blossom Spots and Sakura Festivals 2018 In Tokyo To Feel Spring.” This article will help you to choose which hanami spot is perfect for you! Click below for more details.


Did You Know That There is a Festival Every Day Somewhere in Japan?

Japan is a country of festivals indeed. Matsuri is an essential part of traditional Japanese culture. Thus, every day somewhere in Japan a festival takes place. There are traditional and modern festivals, on the sea and on the ground, in summer and winter. Japanese are hardworking people. However, when you attend at least one festival in Japan, you will understand how locals like to party. The article under the link below will introduce you to a celebration on any day of the year. I am sure you will find an event that suits your interests utmost!

URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/6572/


Have two kids. Teach English at an “eikaiwa” school more than a decade Love cake.

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