The Aoi Matsuri, held annually on May 15, is one of the three main festivals which take place in Kyoto, Japan. Aoi is the Japanese term for Hollychock. The festival dates back to the 7th century and it is said that it started as a way to appease the gods after a severe storm destroyed the harvest. The flower was believed to protect against natural disasters and was used as a decoration throughout the festival. The festival is officially called Kamo Matsuri due to its association with the two Kamo Shrines: Shimogamo Shrine (Lower Shrine) and Kamigamo Shrine (Upper Shrine).
The festival features a parade with over 500 participants dressed in costumes from the Heian period (794-1185). The parade begins at 10:30 AM at the southern gate of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto. Around 11:15 AM, the procession crosses over the river located in front of the Shimogamo Shrine. Once at the shrine, there is a two hour ritual which takes place before the procession departs for the Kamigamo Shrine.
Each year, a new Saio is elected. The Saio was traditionally a young female member of the royal family who served as the high priestess of the Kamo Shrines. Today, the Saio is an unmarried woman who goes through a purification ceremony before the festival and is carried on a palanquin during the procession. The other main figure of the festival is the Imperial Messenger who leads the parade on horseback.
It is an amazing spectacle to watch as men on horseback, others carrying enormous arrangements of flowers, ornately decorated ox drawn carts and women dressed in traditional aristocratic costumes parade past you. Paid seating is available at the Imperial Palace and at the Kamo shrines as well as along the parade route. Otherwise, you would need to arrive significantly early to obtain a good spot without paying.
The Imperial Palace is 5 minutes on foot from Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma Subway Line.
Address: Kyoto-Gyoen, Kamigyo-ku