Aoi-matsuri - Part Three

Posted: 10/05/2021
Category: Japanese Festivals

The climax of Aoi-matsuri features the procession in the streets extending in length to about one kilometer along the avenue. The retinue of the Imperial Envoy, who rides on horseback with the dignity of a person ready to show off his rank, is met at both shrines with much pomp and ceremony. The whole event looks stunning, like a scroll picture painted in ancient times, suitable for the former capital.

Photo: The Imperial Envoy

The Imperial Envoy’s retinue is followed by an ox-driven carriage, thirty six horses and about five hundred people wearing a colorful array of costumes to remind of the Heian period. The black ox (considered to be a sacred animal, a symbol of sturdiness and of sacrificial spirit), decorated with aoi leaves, pulls the portable shrine decked with streamers of artificial wisteria flowers. Its dark color is set off by a brilliant reddish-orange silk cover with large silk cords and tassels. Other members of the Imperial Family also display their amazing equestrian elegance and are followed by pretty little girls, attired in splendid versions of epoch costumes. Their powdered faces make them look like real dolls in front of which even the old trees on the roadside seem to admiringly bow their crowns.

Onlookers cannot keep their eyes off the big umbrellas covered with huge brocades and artificial flowers, most often than not peonies – as a symbol of opulence. At the rear of the procession, the eye draws to the Saiō-dai, carried on a litter and accompanied by Imperial servants, from Court Ladies of different ranks down to servant maids. Meanwhile, ancient music is played on flutes, gongs, and drums resounding in the background, making one’s heart thrill with joy.


At both shrines, the Imperial Envoy makes his offering of gohei, a wand tipped with strips of white paper used in purification rituals. He chants in a low voice the message which is written on an elegant red sheet of paper. The priests answer through norito (“invocation to the kami”) and two horses are taken round the dance pavilion three times. There follow offerings of ancient music and dances meant to entertain not only the deities, but the spectators as well.

Besides the rituals and the festive moments mentioned above, both shrines display within the month of May a large array of traditional arts: ikebana, tea ceremonies, poem contests, etc. They all show the inner spirit manifesting itself in the beauty of outer form. They all come to attest year by year that Aoi-matsuri is the quintessence of the sacred and of the beautiful that have taken deep roots in the Japanese heart.

The sacred does not have to point to anything supernatural in order to make one experience mystery. It is what I felt at the ritual of kami-okuri (“sending the god back”) that took place in the sacred grove of Kamigamo-jinja on May 15th. It is a secret ritual, attended only by priests and a few parishioners. Thanks to the kindness of Professors Shunsuke Okunishi and Atsushi Mashimo, I was lucky enough to watch it closely. Before the final race given as an offering, even the horses knelt in front of the sacred abode – a supreme gesture of gratitude imbued with mystery for which words would be superfluous. The sky in the twilight, the moon, and the slopes covered with fresh green grass… everything around made me feel as if transposed into unreal time and a fantastical world.

Aoi-matsuri, which spans the centuries, is a great cultural gift taken over from the past, ready to endure well into the future. How could one ignore the elation it arouses?

Photos: ©Angela Hondru

Angela Hondru Letter to Japan
Bucharest 2020 p.16 - 23

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