Aoi Matsuri

(redirected from Aoi Festival)

Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric, Religious (Shinto)
Date of Observation: May 15
Where Celebrated: Kyoto, Japan
Symbols and Customs: Hollyhock


Aoi Matsuri is a Shinto festival. Shinto is an ancient religion that originated in Japan. Most Shinto adherents live in Japan, but small communities also exist in Europe, Latin America, North America, and in the Pacific island nations. Aoi Matsuri

The name Shinto was first employed during the sixth century C . E . to differentiate indigenous religions in Japan from faith systems that originated in mainland Asia (primarily Buddhism and Confucianism). The word is derived from two Chinese characters, shen (gods) and tao (way). Loosely translated, Shinto means "way of the gods." Its roots lie in an ancient nature-based religion. Some important concepts in Shinto include the value of tradition, the reverence of nature, cleanliness (ritual purity), and the veneration of spirits called kami. Strictly speaking, kami are not deities. The literal translation of the word kami is "that which is hidden."

Kami (which is both the singular and plural term) are honored, but do not assert their powers upon humans in the traditional manner of deities or gods in other religions. People may be descended from the kami, and kami may influence the course of nature and events. The kami can bestow blessings, but they are not all benign. Kami are present in natural things such as trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. They are embodied in religious relics, especially mirrors and jewels. They also include spirits of ancestors, local deities, holy people, and even political or literary figures. The human role is to venerate the kami and make offerings. The ultimate goal of Shinto is to uphold the harmony among humans and between people and nature. In this regard, the principle of all kami is to protect and sustain life.

The central authorities in Shinto are the priests. Traditionally the duties of the priest were passed through heredity lines, but in modern times, priests are trained on the basis of recommendation. The priests' duties include communicating with the kami and ensuring that ceremonies are properly carried out. Shinto does not have a single collection of sacred texts analogous to the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur'an. Instead, several important books provide information and guidance: Koji- ki (Records of Ancient Events), Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), and Engishiki (Chronicles of the Engi).

One of the three major festivals of Kyoto, Japan, Aoi Matsuri dates back to the sixth century. It gets its name-the Hollyhock Festival-from the leaves used to decorate the headdresses worn by the participants. The festival takes place on May 15, when the cherry blossoms have fallen and the irises are not yet in flower. The heavy rains and gray skies that are common in Kyoto at this time of year are one reason, according to legend, that the festival was established. Flooding was so widespread during the sixth century that imperial messengers were sent to the Kyoto shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo to ask for the gods' help. When the floodwaters receded, the people held a celebration.

The festival, which was revived in 1884, consists of a recreation of the original procession to the shrines. The participants gather at the Imperial Palace in the morning to begin the long, circuitous route to the shrines. Spectators may purchase seats at the palace to watch the parade, or they can choose their own viewing place along the route. The highlight of the procession is the imperial messenger and his courtiers, who are dressed in elaborate kimonos and the high-backed black hats known as eboshi. They surround a large, lacquered gissha or oxcart draped with fuji or artificial wisteria flowers and pulled by a black ox who is drawn through the streets by ropes of orange silk. Other participants in Heian-period costumes carry huge ceremonial umbrellas covered with large, artificial flowers-usually peonies, symbolic of wealth and distinction. A lady carried on a litter represents a princess who has been chosen to lead the difficult life of a Shinto priestess. Traditional Japanese music with flutes, gongs, and drums accompanies the procession. Spectators often need a program to help them identify the various warriors, courtiers, and other dignitaries in the parade.



Aoi is usually translated to mean "hollyhock," but a different plant-probably a wild ginger-may originally have been used in the festival. When wild ginger became hard to find, other plants with heart-shaped leaves were substituted. At the end of the procession to the Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines, the foliage is offered as a token of respect and appreciation to the gods.

The Japanese believed that hollyhocks could prevent storms and earthquakes. By bringing this plant with its heart-shaped leaves to the shrine, they are commemorating the heavy rains and flooding that plagued Kyoto during the sixth century.


Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.


Japan National Tourist Organization

Kyoto Prefectural Government Tourism and Convention Office Aoi Matsuri
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Aoi Matsuri

May 15
One of the three major festivals of Kyoto, Japan, the Hollyhock Festival is believed to date from the sixth century. The festival's name derives from the hollyhock leaves adorning the headdresses of the participants; legend says hollyhocks help prevent storms and earthquakes. The festival owes its present form to the time in the Heian period (792-1099) when imperial messengers were sent to the Kyoto shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo after a plague (or a flood) that came about because the shrines were neglected. Today the festival, which was revived in 1884, consists of a re-creation of the original imperial procession. Some 500 people in ancient costume parade with horses and large lacquered oxcarts carrying the "imperial messengers" from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the shrines.
See also Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communications
2-7-7 Hirakawacho
Tokyo, 102-0093 Japan
81-3-3263-5041; fax: 81-3-3230-4107
Kyoto City Tourism & Culture Information
233-5 Daimon-ji-cho, Atarashimachi-dori
Oike-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku
Kyoto, 604-8315 Japan
81-7-5811-6388; fax: 81-7-5813-3250
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 122
HolSymbols-2009, p. 29
JapanFest-1965, p. 30
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.