The month of May offered to me the opportunity to heartily enjoy, together with the Japanese, one of the oldest festivals in Kyōto – Aoi-matsuri. According to the documents (though opinions differ), it dates back to the time of Emperor Yōmei (r. 586-587) when the country was ravaged by unusual drought and severe famine. In order to placate the malevolent spirits that brought forth the disasters, the Emperor sent a delegation to the Kamo shrines, with offerings addressed to the guardian deities. The priests were asked to perform rituals for rain making. Several years later, serious floods played havoc throughout the country. There followed other prayers, this time for the subsiding of the floods and for quelling the God of Thunder. The priests at the Kamo shrines considered the guardian deities were very angry again. In order to appease them, they also initiated a procession within the precincts, wearing masks of wild boars – a symbol of fearlessness – and riding horses with bells around their necks. The latter seemed to have worked well in sonorously warding off evil spirits, since the kami calmed down.
Aoi-matsuri is also known as “Hollyhock Festival”. During the Heian period (794-1184) the hollyhock was believed to have the power of preventing thunder and earthquakes. It might be the reason for which during the festival at Kamigamo-jinja and Shimogamo-jinja in Kyōto the eaves of the houses, the portable shrines, the priests’ attire, the epoch costumes, and the participants’ hats are all decorated with hollyhock leaves.
Photo: Hollyhock flowers and leaves at the eaves of Kamigamo shrine
The Imperial portable shrine, the traditional garments of those present in the procession, the carriages and horses, and the hollyhock leaves create a divine and mysterious atmosphere. The primary aim of Aoi-matsuri is to uphold the refined traditions and customs of the Heian Court, as well as the ancient songs and dances given as offerings to the celebrated deities, emphasizing at the same time the role of purification encountered at every step in order to meet the sacred. Mention should be made of the incense whose main role is to exorcise evil spirits, but whose lofty perfume delights the kami through its smell. The first formal purification of both horses and riders is enacted on May 1st , to prepare them for the horse race on 5th May. The most important purification ritual is Misogi-no-gi, in which Saiō-dai (“Substitute for a High Priestess”) and other female participants purify themselves in one of the brooks of the shrine on either May 4th or 5th . In ancient times, Saiō was a chaste maiden who became the Kami’s wife for only one night. The wedding was a “must”, so that the deity’s power could remain in our world. The ceremonial kimono of the Saiō-dai is a traditional Court dress made up of twelve layers of exquisitely coloured silk, folded one upon the other so as to show their many-tinted edges at throat, sleeves, and skirt. Both the kimono and the lady’s elegant and impressive gestures made me easily fancy what the aristocrats in the “golden epoch” of Japanese culture looked like.
I would also like to mention Yabusame-shinji – a ritualistic mounted archery that takes place at Shimogamo-jinja on May 3rd , which is considered a ritual of purification, too. The riders’ beautiful costumes and the horses’ ornaments, reminding of the Heian period, against the background of a gorgeous landscape, seem to transpose one into a completely different fascinating world.
Photos: The horses are getting ready for the ritual
On May 5th, before the horse race that took place on the race grounds between the first and the second torii of Kamigamo-jinja, I was deeply impressed by the little warriors holding their halberds as though ready to attack an invisible foe.
To be continued in part 2...
Photos: ©Angela Hondru
Angela Hondru Letter to Japan
Bucharest 2020 p.16 - 23