Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri – Festival of Ages
Kyoto Celebrates History with Festival Parade
An Imperial Princess with two attendants from yesteryear
Every year on Oct. 22, the city of Kyoto celebrates its long history with the Jidai Matsuri — “Festival of the Ages” — a long procession of participants dressed in the various fashions of Japanese history. The festival was created in 1895 to mark the 1,100 anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as Japan’s imperial capital.
On Oct. 22, 794, Emperor Kammu decided to relocate the imperial capital to what is today modern Kyoto. The imperial capital used to be 30 miles to the east in Nara, a city brimming with powerful, politically scheming Buddhist institutes. While the capital was in Nara (710-794) a certain amorous Buddhist priest nearly got himself named emperor by a lovesick empress. She died, however, before he could make his dream a reality and all the priest received was a swift banishment for his efforts. This incident and the strong influence of the Buddhist Temples on the imperial court, helped to prompt the move away from Nara.
The Imperial Court remained in Kyoto until 1867 when it was relocated to Tokyo. Kyoto was crushed by the news — even today some of Kyoto’s citizens will refer to Tokyo as the “new capital” despite the fact that all of Japan had been ruled from Tokyo since the beginning of the 17th century. Still, pride in their city is unflagging and a few decades later, Kyoto was seen celebrating its long and glorious history. In 1895, the Heian Shrine was constructed, which is a 2/3 scale model of the original imperial palace. The first Jidai Matsuri marked its opening.
The Heian Shrine and the Jidai Matsuri honor the spirits of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781-806) and Emperor Komei (1847-1866), the first and last reigning emperors of Kyoto. The participants in the procession represent famous moments and people who left their mark on Kyoto, Japanese history, and culture. The costumes are historically accurate and have been painstakingly recreated using traditional methods.
The Jidai Matsuri begins at Kyoto Gosho — the old Imperial Palace — and winds its long way to Heian Shrine. There are over 3000 participants in the Jidai Matsuri and the procession lasts for two hours. It takes the participants 2.5 hours to reach their destination at the Heian Shrine.
The Jidai Matsuri follows a reverse chronological order, starting in the mid 19th century and going backward to the founding of the city a thousand years earlier.
The first participants arrive in horse-drawn carriages that would have looked right at home in Victorian London, except for the dress of their passengers. Inside the carriages sit Japanese and foreigners dressed in kimono symbolizing the opening of Japan to the world in the 19th century.
Horsedrawn carriage with Japanese and Foreign Occupants from the Meiji Period
Behind them comes the Royal Army of the Meiji Restoration which fought against the Tokugawa Shogunate government in Tokyo in order to restore the power and dignity of the Imperial Court, led by Emperor Meiji. A number of Imperial supporters actually wanted Japan to remain closed off from the world but after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it became all too apparent that Japan could not remain isolated any longer.
Meiji Troops – they fought supporters of the Tokugawa Shogunate to restore the Emperor’s power
The Edo Period (1615-1866) is represented by a delegation from the Tokugawa Shogunate paying a visit to the emperor. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, won a great battle at Sekigahara which assured his power as sole ruler of Japan. The emperor bestowed upon him the title of Shogun in 1603.
Representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate
Though he retired in favor of his son two years later, Tokugawa still oversaw much of the governance of the country until his death in 1616. The seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate was Edo — modern day Tokyo. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s successors and their ministers were less inclined to deal with foreign affairs and so they passed a series of edicts which basically closed Japan off from the rest of the world for almost 250 years.
Another representative of the early Edo Period is Izumo-no-Okuni (1600) who was the originator of the art of Kabuki. She was once a maiden in the service of the Izumo Shrine, one of Japan’s holiest Shinto shrines, and became famous in Kyoto for her dancing. She created the first Kabuki dance with young women dressed as samurai. The dancing was apparently too distracting for the samurai and other men that the stuffy Tokugawa Shogunate banned women from the stage as of 1629. From then on, all roles, including those of the women, would be played by men.
Izumo-no-Okuni – creator of Kabuki dance with one of her players
A large ornate oxcart represents an official visit paid to the emperor by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. Toyotomi arose to power from humble beginnings in the wartorn Sengoku (Warring States) Period. After the death of his lord, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi continued his master’s work in uniting Japan under one banner.
A colorful wagon pulled by an ox
Under Toyotomi, the tea ceremony rose in popularity amongst the samurai and later other classes. Though a creative and innovative leader, in his later days he foolishly attempted to invade China through Korea, which bogged both countries down in needless destruction and death.
Following Hideyoshi is Oda Nobunaga. His entry into Kyoto in 1569 represented the culmination of many warlords’ life dream during the Sengoku Period. To be able to march into Kyoto and proclaim to fight in the emperor’s name was the ultimate sign of warlord’s success in those turbulent times. Many had been unable to do so because they were beset upon all sides by enemies.
Oda Nobunaga and his troops entered Kyoto in 1569
In 1560, a powerful warlord, Imagawa Yoshimoto, tried to march all the way to Kyoto but was killed enroute in a surprise attack by Oda Nobunaga. Oda fought many battles to quell the warlords who would not submit to his power — he even fought against the militant Buddhist clergy. His bloody career came to an end in 1582 when he was killed by one of his own generals also in a surprise attack.
The gap in years shows with the arrival of Kusunoki Masashige, which jumps the procession back over 200 years to 1330. Kusunoki was a samurai of the early 14th century and fiercely loyal to the emperor. Japan was ruled at the time by the disintegrating Shogunate government in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). Emperor Go-Daigo plotted to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate, but was exiled. Kusunoki aided in the emperor’s escape and fought against Kamakura forces with skill and ingenuity.
The loyal Kusunoki Masashige
In 1333, the Kamakura Shogunate fell and Imperial power was restored, but only temporarily. Many samurai were dissatisfied with their reward for their aid and with the court noble’s high-handed attitude. One of the chief leaders at the time, Ashikaga Takauji, sided with the discontented samurai and drove Go-Daigo into exile where he set up a rival imperial court in the south which lasted several decades. Ashikaga Takauji then went on to set up a new Shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. He and his successors have been left out of the Jidai Matsuri entirely. I realized with this conspicuous absence that this “Festival of Ages” is not so much a celebration of Japanese history, but a celebration of Kyoto’s history and its emperor. Those who neglected the emperor have been left out of the procession.
However, in 2007 the gap between Oda Nobunaga and Kusunoki Masashige was finally filled with the added representation of the Shogun Ashikaga Takauji.
Ashikaga Takauji finally gets to appear in the Jidai Matsuri
As for the faithful Kusunoki Masashige, he remained loyal to Go-Daigo and died heroically in battle against Takauji’s forces in 1336. A statue of Kusunoki was erected in Tokyo nearly six centuries later to commemorate his selfless devotion.
Kusunoki Masashige’s colorfully-attired troops from the early 14th Century
Behind Kusunoki comes the Lady Shizuka, a famed Kyoto dancer of the late 12th century, who was the lover of the hero Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune. Hers is a sad story. Yoshitsune was a brilliant Genji general in the Gempei War (1180-1185) fought between the great families of the Heike and the Genji. His success, however, earned him the jealously and distrust of his half-brother, Yoritomo, the leader of the Genji. In 1185, Yoritomo forced his half-brother to flee and live like an outlaw.
Shizuka Gozen (Lady Shizuka): tragic herione of the late 12th Century
Four years later facing capture and certain execution, Yoshitsune committed suicide. Shizuka, pregnant with his child, was captured by Yoritomo. Reportedly, she danced for him and so charmed him that Yoritomo spared her life and that of her unborn child only if it was a girl. Unfortunately, the baby turned out to be a boy and was soon put to death so it would not grow to manhood and seek vengeance for its father.
Representing the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) are the Yabusame Archers. Yabusame is a Shinto ritual with military practicality. A Yabusame archer had to shoot an arrow at three targets spaced out along a track while riding a galloping horse. The first Kamakura Shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, encouraged his samurai warriors to practice Yabusame to keep their skills sharp. Yoritomo set his capital in the east in Kamakura away from what he thought of as the debilitating influence of Kyoto.
Sometime after Yoritomo’s death, the position of the Shogun was usurped by his wife’s family, the Hojo, who ruled in the name of the figurehead Shogun as Regent. They established a firm government that resisted an attempt by one emperor to overthrow them (which probably reflects the absence of the Hojo in the Jidai Matsuri) and two invasions by the Mongols. They were financially weakened by their efforts to defend Japan against the Mongols. Half-a-century later, the Kamakura Shogunate was overthrown by forces loyal to the emperor.
A Yabusame Archer and his retainers
An Imperial Guard – statues of these guards can be found at certain Shinto shrines
Court nobles and Imperial guards represent the Fujiwara Period (897-1185), a time when the powerful noble family, the Fujiwara, controlled the governance of the country as ministers to the imperial court. One of the most powerful Fujiwara ministers was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). He arranged to have his daughters marry the emperors and have his grandson of one of these unions ascend the throne. In time the Fujiwaras’ power weakened and they had to rely more often on the warrior families, chiefly the Heike and the Genji, to control the country. Eventually, the Fujiwara would be succeeded by the military Heike family who in turn were destroyed by the Genji in the Gempei War.
The fierce Tomoe Gozen – samurai warrior woman
Following in the train of the Fujiwara nobles comes some of the most famous women of Japanese history. Astride a horse dressed in samurai armor carrying the deadly long-bladed naginata is Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe fought beside her husband, Minamoto-no-Yoshinaka, as one of his most trusted captains in the Gempei War. In 1183, Yoshinaka captured Kyoto from Heike forces. His success went to his head and his ever-suspicious cousin, Yoritomo, ordered his half-brother, Yoshitsune, to destroy the would-be upstart. Tomoe fought gloriously in her husband’s last battle. Reports of her end are mixed. Some say she died in battle, others that she took Yoshinaka’s head with her and perished in the sea, and others say she ended her days as a nun.
Famous Writers of the 11th Century: Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu
The writers Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu follow the warlike Tomoe. Sei Shonagon (966-1025) was a sharp-witted lady of the court whose observations of courtly life are preserved in her famous work: “Makura-no-Soshi” (The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon). Murasaki Shikibu (980-1014), also a lady of the court, penned the internationally renowned classic, the “Genji Monogatari” (Tale of the Genji).
The first Shogun and his troops returning after a successful campaign
The next military procession is of the early samurai warriors of the 9th century led by General Sakanoue Tamuramaro. Sakanoue was the first military commander to be named “Shogun” by Emperor Kammu. Originally, the title “shogun” was given temporarily to military leaders to subdue the turbulent Ezo (Ainu) natives of Tohoku, the northern region of Japan. This procession depicts the triumphant return of the Shogun Sakanoue after a successful campaign.
A court noble from Kyoto’s early days
Court nobles wearing straight swords come next to greet the emperor of the early Heian Period (794-1185). The colors of their robes signify their rank.
Boys dressed in colorful costumes with bird wings on their backs
Children wearing colorful costumes with the wings of butterflies or mythical birds on their backs precede the arrival of the mikoshi (portable shrine) of Emperors Kammu and Komei.
Mikoshi – portable shrine – of the spirit of the first and last reigning emperors in Kyoto
The Shinko-Retsu (Procession of the Sacred Carriages) brings a close to the Jidai Matsuri. The two mikoshi transfer the spirits of Kammu and Komei to the Heian Shrine.
Late 8th Century Archer who guarded Emperor Kammu’s procession into Kyoto on Oct. 22, 794
Accompanying the mikoshi are 8th – 9th century archers from the Tamba region noted for their skills with the bow. When Emperor Kammu first moved the capital to Kyoto, these archers guarded his sacred procession into his new capital. And with their departure, the Festival of Ages with its glimpse into the past draws to a close.
A Poet of an earlier age peeks out at the modern world