In The Kimono Tattoo, main character Ruth Bennett keeps an eye on the Japanese seasons. She knows when it’s appropriate to wear unlined kimonos or to dispense with long sleeves. Knowing of her fastidiousness, I was surprised when she forgot to celebrate the Aoi Matsuri! The oversight shocked Ruth a bit, too.
This year I noticed that even Kyoto overlooked the Aoi Matsuri. Throughout the last two years, the city has canceled a number of celebrations in light of the COVID pandemic.
In honor of the festival and the city I love so much, I dedicate this post to the Aoi Matsuri.
What is the Aoi Matsuri?
Held on the 15th day of the Fifth Month, the Aoi Matsuri is one of three large festivals unique to Kyoto. (The others are the Gion, held in July, and the Jidai—or History Festival—held in October.) Ostensibly an agrarian rite to ward off malign spirits and pray for bountiful harvests, the Aoi Festival predates the founding of Kyoto. Once the court relocated to the area in 794, the festival transformed into a recognition of the power and prestige of the Kamo Shrines — the Kamigamo and the Shimogamo. On the day of the festival, participants dressed in period costumes process from the Imperial Palace along busy Kyoto streets.
Today the festival calls back to an earlier era in the city’s history when elegant men and women traveled by lumbering bullock carts.
The word “aoi” refers to a plant with green leaves. Usually, the word is translated “hollyhock,” but I prefer the word Edward Seidensticker used in his translation of The Tale of Genji, “heartvine.” The leaf is shaped like a delicate heart.
On the day of the festival, those in the procession pin the leaves to their caps and garments. Even the massive oxen are decorated appropriately, with bright vermilion cords and festive drapes.
The Aoi Matsuri always reminds me of a dramatic scene in The Tale of Genji, a brilliant episodic court tale attributed to a Japanese court lady known as Murasaki Shikibu. In the scene crowds of spectators come to observe the dashing prince Genji process during the Aoi Matsuri. Genji’s primary wife, Aoi, is among the spectators. She has arrived in a lavish cart with outriders and servants wearing matching attire—quite a spectacle!
Another one of Genji’s paramours is there as well, the Rokujō Lady. She has traveled discreetly in a modest carriage, hoping to remain incognito. Aoi’s men soon recognize Rokujō’s men and the two groups begin to fight.
In the melee, Rokujō’s tiny carriage is pushed back behind the rows of other carts and is damaged. Rokujō is trapped. She cannot leave the parade grounds, and she cannot see her beloved as he passes. All she can do is sit in her carriage mortified, her heart in turmoil.
Later in the chapter, Aoi goes into labor with Genji’s child. Her body, weakened by pregnancy, grows susceptible to restless spirits that make delivery difficult.
Her father calls in exorcists who manage to cast out all but one tenacious spirit. We soon learn that this is Rokujō’s spirit. So distraught had she been over her humiliation at the Aoi Festival, she sends her spirit forth—from her living body—to possess her rival.
Aoi will eventually give birth to a beautiful boy, but she will die in the aftermath. Rokujō will henceforth be recognized for the power of her revenge—known either as the epitome of female jealousy or the model of female agency.
This scene from the Aoi Festival and the dramatic passion it unleashes has served as creative fodder for later Noh dramas, films, feminist fiction, and manga!
When Noh actors perform the scene, the man playing the role of Rokujō often wears a robe decorated with a cartwheel motif.
The cartwheel echoes the passion-pitched battle at the Aoi Matsuri. These wheels remind us that the women in The Tale of Genji are irrevocably tied to the wheel of fate, tied to this world by their love, their desire, and their jealousy.
The cartwheel motif is popular in other media as well. Here I share a lacquer tea caddy—used to contain the powdery green matcha tea in a tea ceremony. The lid is decorated with a symbol associated with an “incense matching” game and also has the buried cartwheel motif. Elegance and a gentle reference to the wheel of fate—all is impermanent, especially beauty and love.
The spiritual power manifest in the scene also informs my novel, The Kimono Tattoo. Although not in any way a direct reference to The Tale of Genji, the story nevertheless pulses with the same kind of simmering passion produced by a woman’s pain.
You can learn more about the Aoi Matsuri and hear a reading from The Kimono Tattoo in this Instagram Live video I made on May 14, 2022.
May the Aoi Matsuri return to Kyoto next year—and may the city welcome the return of tourists, too. Until that day, we can always travel vicariously through art.