Aoi Masturi or the Hollyhock Festival dates back 1,400 years in the 7th century to the reign of Emperor Kinmei (539 – 571). It is one of three most popular festivals in Kyoto (Gion Masturi and Jidai Masturi are the other two) and is held annually on 15 May at 10.30 am; proceeding from the Sakaimachi-gomon Gate of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, along Marutamachi-dori. We arrived early and plonked ourselves with a premium view facing the Gate, with a group of tourists and Japanese. The hour-long procession consists of over 600 participants dressed in the Heian Period’s (794 – 1185) aristocratic style. From the Palace, they proceed towards the Kamo Shrines, north of the Palace, where ceremonies are performed: a 45 mins walk along Kawaramachi-dori to the Shimogamo-jinja, and another 70 mins along Shimogamo Hon-dori, Kita-Ogi-dori, and Kamo-kaido, terminating at the Kamigamo-jinja at around 3.30 pm. Horseback archery (Shoku Nihongi) is demonstrated at the Kamogamo grounds.
Although its precise origins are uncertain, the historical record has it that rites were first performed to remove the blight from natural disasters of heavy rains with high winds that had ruined the grain harvest, together with epidemics that had spread throughout the country, attributed to the anger of the Kamo Shrines’ deities. Originally known as Kamo Masturi, where hollyhock (aoi) leaves are worn by every member of the procession, the festival includes 36 men and women on horseback, two elaborately decorated ox-drawn carts, giant bouquets of flowers atop courtly umbrellas, a retinue of bearers of ritual instruments and gifts, and a bevy of kimono-clad ladies accompanying the appointed Saio. Carried on a palanquin, the latter is a handpicked unmarried Kyoto lady who undergoes the purification ceremony and participates in the ceremonial rituals at the Shrines.