Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, attracts tourists from all over the world. Most of them come to Kyoto to seek an ancient atmosphere of Japan. Of course, you can enjoy it throughout the year in Kyoto. First and foremost is the annual Aoi Festival, one of the nation's most elegant events.
With a history of more than 1,000 years, it is renowned for its parade featuring an imperial palanquin called a 'yoyo' and 600-odd participants dressed in the attire of nobles from the Heian Period (794-1185), when Kyoto was home to the imperial court. The parade starts at the former imperial palace and proceeds via two major shrines, Shimogamojinja and Kamigamojinja.
The festival takes its name from the aoi, or hollyhock leaves, carried by participants in the procession.
It is said to have its origins in Emperor Kinmei's decision to send envoys to the two shrines for ceremonies he hoped would eradicate famine and sickness that hit in the middle of the sixth century.
New Year traditions run deep in Kyoto. Even the nationwide custom of visiting temples and shrines at night and on New Year's Day to pray for prosperity in the year ahead has an extra glow.
Yasakajinja shrine, for instance, holds a rite called okera mairi, in which a ceremonial fire is kept burning in a large metal lantern on New Year's Eve. Visitors light bits of thin rope, which when twirled keep the embers glowing. The idea is to go home and light a candle or use the embers to ignite a flame for cooking, which is said to ensure good health in the months ahead.
Other New Year's events rarely seen in such a traditional atmosphere outside Kyoto include karuta hajime, literally the first card game of the year. It features traditional hyakunin isshu, where players dressed in costumes of Heian nobility vie to be the first to find a card bearing corresponding verses that are read out. This also takes place at Yasakajinja shrine.
Another Kyoto fixture is the game of kemari, which involves kicking a ball into the air and trying to keep it from hitting the ground. That, too, was a sport of noblemen in centuries past.
Held at Shimogamojinja shrine, the event always attracts a crowd.
Setsubun, usually commemorated around Feb. 3 when winter turns to spring, is marked by a custom called mamemaki--the bean-throwing rite so common today at homes, temples and shrines to drive out demons or evil spirits and to bring good fortune.
The Setsubun rite at Yoshidajinja shrine in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward is said to retain the original form of the tradition, which started in the early Heian Period. People dressed in red, blue and yellow to denote demons romp around the shrine stage.
Suddenly, a four-eyed awesome-looking character called hososhi emerges. But don't be nervous. The hososhi is dedicated to eradicating sickness, according to ancient Chinese beliefs. This part of the ceremony, called tsuinashiki, is held on the night of Feb. 2 or the eve of Setsubun.
The Aoi Festival held May 15 involves a procession that starts at the former Kyoto imperial palace and proceeds to Shimogamojinja shrine and then on to Kamigamojinja shrine. Spots along the Kamogawa river offer the best views. The palace can be reached from Marutamachi subway station, and Shimogamojinja shrine from Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Keihan Line. Take a bus from Kitayama subway station to reach Kamigamojinja shrine.
New Year events are held across Kyoto. Yasakajinja shrine, near the Gion district, is a short bus ride from Kyoto Station.
The Setsubun event at the Yoshidajinja shrine is held Feb. 2-4.
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