Nov. 28, 2022 UPDATE

A report from the frontlines of Aoi Matsuri, a festival with a history of over 1000 years!

We went to Aoi Matsuri, one of the big three festivals in Kyoto!
Erika[ Sharing Kyoto Staff ]

Aoi Matsuri is held every May 15. Together with Gion and Jidai, it is called one of the big three festivals in Kyoto. The part most people see of the festival, held by both Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines, is the elegant procession with people dressed in Heian period clothing. This elegant procession which makes you almost think you were back in the Heian period only takes place once a year, so as a writer of Sharing Kyoto, I, of course, had to go see it! So I took Sampo with me and went to see this glamorous procession.

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The procession starts

The procession starts at half past 10 in the morning from the Kyoto Imperial Palace and heads toward Kamigamo Shrine through Shimogamo Shrine. There are seats on both sides of the procession from where you can observe it. Notice that you need to buy a ticket to see the festival from these seats, but otherwise the festival is free.


Kyoto Imperial Palace

We took our seats in front of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The starting time is at 10:30 a.m. but we were there an hour early, but still couldn’t get the seats in the front row, so if you want to get the best seats you have to be prepared to go early.



It’s half past 10, so the procession begins! The official name for the procession is Roto-no-Gi, and it is made up from the main procession of the men, and the procession of women following it.


Heian period the clothing

What is special about this procession is the way the clothing of all the different ranking Heian period nobles is replicated. In the Heian period the clothing, like the color of the clothes, was a thing decided by one’s position. When watching the procession you can see this in the clothes, but also on things like the reins of the horses.



Not many people know this, but actually the most important person in the procession is this man dressed in black, Chokushidai, who participates in the procession acting in place of the imperial messenger, and his high status can easily be seen from the ornamental saddle on his horse.


 the weather was great and it must have really hot

very noble

Although the weather was great and it must have really hot, the expressions on the people who participated in the procession were very noble.



This carriage pulled by an ox called Gissha is one of the highlights of the procession. This used to be the transportation method for the Chokushi, but not the carriage is empty.



The ox is also wearing decorations for this day and looks cute. 



look cute 

Last in the main procession come these huge umbrellas called Furyugasa, which are even bigger than I thought they would be, but they still look cute, though they must be very heavy.


procession of women

After the main procession comes the procession of women. This is the most gorgeous and popular part of Aoi Matsuri.


The beautiful women

Not only men, but women are also on horseback. The beautiful women with their geisha-like white faces look noble and beautiful.


These court ladies are called Myobu

These court ladies are called Myobu, and they have men holding parasols for them. This day the wind was a bit strong, and the way the cloth on the parasol caught the wind made these two smile, which is something I remember very well of that day. Often the unexpected things are the ones you remember the best afterward. 



After I began to hear excited shouts from all around me, I got to see the slow-moving palanquin of the Saio-dai. The Saio-dai takes the role of the historic Saio, an imperial princess who was committed to the service of the Kamo Shrine (a term encompassing both Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines).

The reason why she is called Saio-dai and not just Saio is that in the present day she is not from the imperial family, but an unmarried girl with connections to Kyoto.


The Saio-dai wears a beautiful junihitoe

This year’s Saio-dai was a student from Kyoto’s Doshisha University. The Saio-dai wears a beautiful junihitoe, a 12-layered kimono, and she is carried on a palanquin, and she is the graceful queen of the show. It takes a lot of money to become the Saio-dai, so she is said to be chosen from the very well-to-do families.

The people in the stands were waving their hands and taking pictures of Saio-dai, and all of them looked very pleased to get to see her.


The cute children

The cute children who follow the Saio-dai also wear colorful kimonos and white makeup.


It is full of Kyoto-likeness

The procession takes about an hour to pass. After exiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the procession heads for Shimogamo Shrine and after that the goal, Kamigamo Shrine. If you have the chance, I hope you will go see this very tasteful procession. It is full of Kyoto-likeness. 

A comment from the staff
Aoi Festival is a festival with an incredibly long history, and one which takes you back to the Heian period. This procession is especially great for those who like horses, as many of the people you see going by are on horseback. Of course the most important person in the procession, Saio-Dai princess, is also the most beautiful, and all the time you have to spend waiting for her to appear is worth it once you get to see her. This may not be as raucous as Gion Matsuri, or as diverse as Jidai Matsuri, but this festival has an especially long history behind it making it a must for all Kyoto aficionados.

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