The Aoi Matsuri Festival

Hollyhock festival procession
Japanexperterna, Aoi Matsuri, Cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0

The word Aoi Matsuri translates to the ‘Hollyhock Festival’ and is sometimes referred to as the Kamo Festival. The event, which is over a thousand years old, takes place yearly on the 15th of March and is one of the three main Kyoto festivals. It involves a procession from the Imperial Palace to the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines. Here we will reveal how it plays out and how to attend.

Topics Covered

  • How the Aoi Matsuri takes place
  • History of the Aoi Matsuri
  • From where to watch
  • Event details

This video shows the Aoi Matsuri procession. The footage is owned and created by Taoyakani.

How the Aoi Matsuri takes place

The procession consists of around 500 participants dressed in Heian Period clothing, horses, and court carriages decorated with hollyhock (Aoi) leaves led by a messenger on horseback with a golden sword. Aoi Matsuri is named after these hollyhock leaves and is believed to bring protection again natural disasters: Aoi (Hollyhock) Matsuri (Festival).

The highlight of the procession is the high priestess, known as the Saio-Dai, being accompanied by a group of women dressed in kimonos. She is easily recognized because not only is she carried on a palanquin but also dressed in a beautiful 12 layer silk kimono. Traditionally a female member such as a sister or daughter of the emperor would be chosen as the Saio with the task of representing the emperor at the Shimogamo Shrine. Nowadays, an unmarried woman is selected who performs ceremonies to the deities at the shrines during the festival.

Kyoto festival
Hahifuheho, Saio Dai at “Misogi no gi”, Cropped, CC0 1.0

Everyone gathers at the southern Imperial Palace gates from where they will leave at 10:30 am to make their way to the Shimogamo Shrine for the rites before proceeding to the end destination, the Kamigamo Shrine.

Origins of the Aoi Matsuri festival

The exact origins of the Aoi Matsuri are unknown, but it’s believed to have started during the 7th century after a storm destroyed the local harvests. As a result, the emperor of the time, Emperor Kinmei, sent his messenger with a group of advisors to the shrine with the task of performing various acts to appease the deities. It seemed to work, and it became an annual event with occasional discontinuations throughout history but once again became fully and permanently reinstated in 1953.

From where to watch

Shinto priests during the Aoi Matsuri.
Japanexperterna, Aoix2, Cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0

Spectators will have two options for attending the Aoi Matsuri. The first option is free but requires you to stand anywhere along the procession route between the Imperial Palace and the Kamigamo Shrine.

For the entire procession to pass will take approximately one hour, so if you don’t mind standing for that long, this may be a good option. Just remember that temperatures in Kyoto during May can get extremely hot, so be sure to find a shaded spot along the route.

If you don’t like the idea of standing for an hour, you might be glad to know that the second option includes seating.

These seats are available at the starting point (Imperial Palace) and both Kamo Shrines.

Imperial Palace and Shimogamo Shrine Tickets: Regular seating for both the Imperial Palace and the Shimogamo Shrine will cost around $27. Seats with English Audio guides are also available at the Imperial Palace at a slightly higher price of $37.

Tickets for both venues can be purchased in advance from several travel agents and Kyoto-based convenience stores.

Kamigamo Shrine Tickets: Tickets for the Kamigamo Shrine go on sale at noon on the day of the festival. Seats are available at $10 each and it’s advised to be there early to secure a place.

Event details

When?15th May
Where?The procession starts at the Imperial Palace and ends at the Kamigamo Shrine.
Admission FeeFree and paid options available.
Time10:30am – 15:30pm

Related Content

Visit the official website of the Aoi Matsuri here.

Read more about the Shimogamo shrine and its importance in the Shinto religion here.

Learn the history and other interesting facts about the Kamigamo shrine here.

Check out other festivals held in and around Kyoto, such as the Toshiya festival, the Jidai matsuri and the Gion matsuri.