There are hundreds of reasons to visit Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, from historic temples and colourful shrines to samurai castles and landscape gardens. Japan’s cultural heart also offers a chance to experience traditional cultural festivals first hand. Let’s take a look at Kyoto’s three great festivals: Jidai Matsuri, Aoi Matsuri and Gion Matsuri.
The Jidai Matsuri, also known as “The Festival of the Ages” is a beautiful and elegant festival that celebrates the wonderful culture and history of Kyoto. Dating back to 1895, it is relatively new compared to many of the other festivals, and can trace its roots back to the relocation of the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868. Kyoto fearing that it would lose some of its old prestige and status with the move, decided to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Heian-kyo (Kyoto) with something new. To inaugurate the first Jidai Matsuri in 1895, the glorious Heian Shrine was built to enshrine the first emperor of Kyoto.
The Highlight of the festival is a large procession from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine, featuring costumes from the 8th century Heian Period (794-1185) to the 19th Century Meiji Period (1868-1912). These amazing costumes give the festival its name, “The Festival of the Ages”, with more than 2,000 people dressed in all sorts of costumes that include emperors, shoguns, samurai, military leaders, warlords and historical figures.
The Jidai Matsuri is held every October 22, which coincidentally is the anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto. The procession leaves the Kyoto Imperial Palace around noon and arrives at Heian Shrine at around 2:30 pm.
The Aoi Matsuri, also known as the “Kamo Matsuri” is a festival of the two kamo shrines in the north of Kyoto, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. The festival dates from the 6th century making it one of the world’s oldest. It started as a way to appease the kamo gods, who are associated with weather, after a series of severe storms destroyed the harvest causing famine and disease.
The highlight of the festival is the imperial parade through the main streets of Kyoto featuring traditional aristocratic costumes from the Heian Period (794-1185). The two main figures of the parade are the Saio-Dai (traditionally a young female member of the Imperial family) and the Imperial Messenger, who leads the parade on horseback.
The Aoi Matsuri takes place every May 15 with the start at the southern gate of Kyoto Imperial Palace. The parade slowly makes it way at to the host Kamo Shrines, arriving at Shimogamo Shrine at around 11:15 am with a special ceremony performed for about two hours, before departing and arriving at Kamigamo Shrine at around 3:30 pm.
The Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s biggest annual festival is a month long festival during July. It peaks with a parade of large floats on July 17th and July 24th. The festival is now almost 1,200 years old, first starting in the 9th century as a religious purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. It has evolved into a huge celebration of Kyoto’s culture. It is also a huge summer party, where people dress in yukata robes and enjoy the street food and beer on offer. The festival is named after the famous Gion district, Kyoto’s exclusive geisha entertainment area and is hosted by Yasaka Shrine, which is the guardian shrine of Gion.
The highlight of the festival is the main festival days on July 17th and July 24th, called Yamaboko Junko, they feature a parade of over 30 spectacular festival floats pulled through the streets of Kyoto. The floats are elaborately decorated and depict ancient scenes from Japanese and Chinese history and mythology. The hoko floats are truly impressive at 25 meters tall and weighing 12 tonnes, and are sometimes called ‘mobile art museums’ due to their exquisite craftsmanship and artistry.