[this article appeared in Deccan Herald sometime ago]
I I have seen my share of Ganeshpuja visarjans and Mylapore chariot festivals with their jostling crowds, food stalls and overall carnival ambience, having grown up in Chennai and Mumbai. Nearer home, the Karaga festival in Bangalore last year was the most recent trigger of my pleasant memories of festival days. So imagine my surprise when within minutes of arriving in Kyoto, Japan, recently, my family and I found ourselves in the midst of such a festive parade.
The lights of Tokyo were everything we had imagined and more — it was almost too much to absorb in such a short time. Our vacation was truly going to begin in Kyoto, where we planned to take an easy four days visiting temples and getting to know historic Japan.
Drop your bags right here — you may yet catch the last of the parade if you leave now!” The family and I had just arrived at our Ryokan (Japanese style hotel) in Kyoto. We didn’t even have a chance to catch our breath before the innkeeper hustled us back into a taxi. As our taxi dashed across what seemed a relatively modern town, our garrulous driver, who was caught up in the excitement, tried to communicate with us in a mixture of Japanese and English phrases. Then we saw the procession — a slow stream of people dressed in traditional costumes walking across a bridge, over the river that we had been following up town. This was our first glimpse of the Aoi Matsuri parade. The police had cordoned off all the streets on either side, and we quickly pulled into a side street, piled out of the cab muttering our arigatos to the cab driver and ran to catch up with the parade.
The Aoi Matsuri festival gets its name from the leaves of the aoi or Hollyhock bush, used to decorate all the costumes worn by the participants for the festival. The leaves are believed to have magical powers that protect people against illness and natural calamities such as earthquakes.
The Aoi Matsuri festival which originated in the eighth century, is held in Kyoto on May 15 each year. Men and women wearing period costumes of the Heian era (794 to 1185 AD) parade in a procession across town, from the old Imperial palace in Kyoto to the Shimogamo and Kamigamo Temples in the northern part of the city.
As we caught up with the tail end of the procession, we saw ropes had been tied on either side of the street to keep back the crowds. Not since a festival in India, had we seen such crowds — active grandmothers with the cutest grandkids in tow, camera laden grandfathers, some even carrying their own step ladders, newlyweds and tourists.
Two young Japanese women with painted faces and dressed in ornate kimonos were walking serenely in front of a ceremonial ox carriage. On the carriage was a woman dressed as a princess and surrounded by similarly attired women. The carriage was followed by men dressed as imperial warriors carrying swords. This carriage was the highlight of the entire parade with everyone’s eyes drawn to the girl who represented the imperial princess.
As we clambered around the milling crowd to get a better view of the carriage a swordsman wearing the trademark two swords of a samurai warrior walked by us. The carriage was followed by musicians playing traditional instruments and the rear was brought up by a Daimyo and his samurai warriors.
It was like we were home at the Karaga festival, despite being the only gaijins (foreigners) in the crowd!