Jidai Matsuri: history and tradition of Japan at the festival of the ages

In Kyoto, during one of the most important festivals of the country, the history of Japan comes back to life: prepare to meet samurai, daimyo, shogun, princesses, priests and many others historical figures at the Jidai Matsuri.

One of the many things in which japanese people are truly good at is to keep their traditions alive and flourishing, organising all over the country an impressive number of festivals, namely “matsuri”. One of the most important is undoubtedly the Jidai Matsuri, or festival of the ages, which is held in Kyoto every 22nd October. This date has an important meaning for the city, because on 22nd October of about 1200 years ago the 50th emperor of Japan Kammu Tenno decided to move the capital of the country to Heian-kyo (Heian capital), the former name of Kyoto.
The first Jidai Matsuri dates back to 1895, another important milestone because it’s the year in which the Heian Jingu shrine has been built, as a commemoration of the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the capital in Kyoto.

After this brief foreword, you’re probably wondering what this festival looks like, being so important for the city and so dear to the citizens. Well, the Jidai Matsuri is an elegant pageant which recalls the most important epochs of japanese history, starting from the recent Meiji era and going back to the ancient Heian era: every period is represented by a series of the most important or iconic historical figures, as well as perfectly recreated garments, armors, weapons and items. It’s almost like a time travel, because there’s not a detail that has been overlooked and because behind every dress or armor there’s an accurate process of research, identification and reproduction. To give an idea of how impressive this festival can be, is sufficient to say that the parade itself is made up of more than 2000 people and it takes more than 2 and a half hours to see all of them passing by.

THE JIDAI MATSURI PARADE:

The parade starts at midday from the gates of the Imperial Palace (京都御所 Kyoto Gosho) that has been the residence of Japan’s imperial family until 1868, year in which the capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Then, it goes through the wide gravel paths of the beautiful Kyoto Imperial Park (京都御苑, Kyoto Gyoen) and it exits to the main streets of the city, crossing the Kamo River to reach the magnificent Heian Jingu shrine, that is the destination of the palanquins which contain the spirits of the emperors Komei and Kammu.
To explain in a clear and detailed way the carrying out of the parade, I’m going to list below the sequence of the groups in their order of appearance, that goes in reverse historical order, as said before:

– HONORARY FESTIVAL COMMISSIONERS: The governor of Kyoto Prefecture, the Mayor of Kyoto City, the prefectural and city council leaders, the business and festival support leaders salute the public from their horse drawn carriages, which have the classic style of 1800s.

– MEIJI RESTORATION PERIOD (around 1868): this period is represented by the soldiers of the Imperial Army “Yamagunitai” who helped to put down the final rebellion of the remaining Shogunate supporters. Then follow the patriots of those years.

– EDO PERIOD (1600-1868): this is biggest group of the festival, the Tokugawa Shogun’s deputies, originally consisting of 1700 people ranging from entertainers to warriors. Then follows the procession of distinctive women from Edo-period Kyoto, like princesses, poets, painters and shrine maidens.

– AZUCHI MOMOYAMA PERIOD (1568-1600): this relatively short period is represented by two important groups. The first is the Toyotomi family, whose Hideyoshi is one of the most renowned warlord in the japanese history: starting out as a servant, he managed to unify Japan, after succeeding Oda Nobunaga. The second group is precisely Oda Nobunaga and his clan, maybe the most famous daimyo ever: he started the unification process of Japan and he’s been the first to introduce firearms in the military equipment.

– MUROMACHI PERIOD (1338-1573): the Ashikaga shogunate magistrates parade on horseback with their distinctive light battle armors. Then follows a group that shows the customs of Muromachi daily life, reenacting the Furyu-odori, which is a popular dance in the Kyoto of that time.

– YOSHINO PERIOD (1333-1392): this period is represented by the procession of the legendary samurai Kusunoki Masahige who loyally fought for the emperor Go-Daigo, dying in a battle without any chance of survival.

– LADIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES (1180-1600): this is a part of the parade that embraces the long timespan of the japanese Middle Ages and it consists mainly of two groups, the Ohara-me and the Katsura-me, that are the women of Ohara who sold firewood and charcoal in Kyoto, and the women of Katsura who sold candies and who took part sometimes at weddings or childbirths, singing Shinto purification prayers. Then follow lady Yodo of the Momoyama period, wife of Hideyoshi, lady Abutsu-Ni, a poetess of the Kamakura period and lady Shizuka-Gozen of the Heian period, famed for the tragic love between her and Minamoto Yoshitsune.

– KAMAKURA PERIOD (1192-1333): representative of this period are the Yabusame horse archers (about whom I’ve dedicated an entire blog post some time ago: “Yabusame, the japanese horse mounted archery”), part of the warrior caste composed of samurai, crucial figures of the feudalism in Japan.

– HEIAN PERIOD (794-1185): the first group to appear are the nobles of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful family that has governed Japan, so influent to entitle a period of japanese history, that is the Fujiwara period. Then follows the procession of ladies from the Heian period, led by the only horse riding figure, Tomoe-Gozen who fought alongside her husband in battle. Two other illustrious personalities are the court ladies Murasaki Shikibu, maybe the most famous novelist (as well as poetess) of Japan’s history, thanks to her “Genji Monogatari” (The tale of Genji), and Sei Shonagon, author and poetess, famous for her “Makura no soshi” (The pillow book). It’s interesting to note that Sei Shonagon wears a sumptuous “Juni-hitoe” that is an elaborate 12 layers kimono for ceremonies.

– ENRYAKU PERIOD (782-806): this period sees the emperor Kammu Tenno moving the capital from Nara to Kyoto in 794. The first part of the procession represents the Shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro and his army returning to the emperor after conquering the northern Honshu, subjugating the natives Emishi. The second part represents the court nobles at the beginning of the Heian era who offer greetings to the emperor

– FINAL PART OF THE PROCESSION: in this last part of the parade there’s a group that carries offerings to the Heian Jingu shrine, followed by the Zen-Retsu, a group of musicians who perform music typical of Shinto rituals. Finally the major feature of the Jidai Matsuri arrives: the Shinko-Retsu, that is the procession of the Omikoshi, two palanquins which contain the deified spirits of the emperors Komei and Kammu, carried on the shoulder toward the Heian Jingu shrine. Closes the procession the Shirakawa-me, women of the Shirakawa river who offer flowers to the deities, and the Tamba archers who protect the two Omikoshi.

 

Ishin Kinno Yamagunitai, imperial army equipped with rifles from Tanba. Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Ishin Kinno Yamagunitai: during the Meiji Restoration, these soldiers equipped with rifles, besides the traditional swords, arrived in Kyoto from Yamaguni village of Tanba region to support the Imperial Army in suppressing the last resistance of the Tokugawa shogunate’s loyals.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/640s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Kazu no Miya the imperial princess, younger sister of the emperor Komei. Kimono, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Kazu no Miya: younger sister of the emperor Komei, the imperial princess Kazu no Miya wears the “Juni-hitoe” 12 layers robe to become the spouse of the shogun Tokugawa Iemochi in a politically arranged marriage.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/320s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Niwa Nagahide: samurai retainer of Oda Nobunaga and then Daimyo. Yoroi, Armor, Kabuto, Helmet, Katana, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Niwa Nagahide: grown up at the side of Oda Nobunaga as his retainer, Niwa Nagahide fought many battles, married Nobunaga’s daughter and eventually became a Daimyo for having supported Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who avenged Nobunaga’s death. He died 3 years after Oda Nobunaga.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/800s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO800

 

Takigawa Kazumasu, samurai retainer of Oda Nobunaga. Yoroi, Armor, Kabuto, Helmet, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Takigawa Kazumasu: wearing an unmistakable double-horned kabuto (armor’s helmet), Takigawa Kazumasu has been a retainer of Oda Nobunaga as Niwa Nagahide. He fought many important battles and he held a powerful rival clan at bay. After Nobunaga’s death, he’s been forced to support Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He died 4 years after Oda Nobunaga.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/1000s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO800

 

Shibata Katsuie, samurai and commander for Oda Nobunaga. Yoroi, Armor, Kabuto, Helmet, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Shibata Katsuie: initially an opposer of Oda Nobunaga, Shibata Katsuie swore loyalty to him after losing a battle and having had his life spared. As a commander, he then conquered many lands for Nobunaga and married his sister. After the death of his lord, Shibata Katsuie has been defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and decided to commit seppuku with his wife.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/640s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Mandokoro Shitsuji: samurai deputy of the shogunate. Yoroi, Armor, Yumi, Longbow, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Mandokoro Shitsuji: this figure is a deputy (Shitsuji) of the Mandokoro, that is the administrative department of the Shogunate. In this specific case, this samurai is the responsible for financial affair of Ise city.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/400s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Flag officer of Kusunoki Masashige. Samurai, Yoroi, Armor, Kabuto, Helmet, Katana, Flag, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Flag officer of Kusunoki Masashige: this samurai is one of the two standard bearers of Kusunoki Masashige’s triumphant entrance in Kyoto with the Emperor Go-Daigo.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/400s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Kusunoki Masashige legendary samurai. Yoroi, Armor, Kabuto, Helmet, Yumi, Longbow, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Kusunoki Masashige: the figure of Kusunoki Masashige represents the ideal of samurai loyalty. He fought for the exiled emperor Go-Daigo and thanks to his abilities, he managed to make the emperor return to Kyoto. He proved his loyalty for the last time, sacrificing himself in an impossible battle against Ashikaga Takauji to defend the emperor. He has been honored posthumously with the highest decoration from the Meiji government.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/400s
Aperture: F/3.5
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Tomoe Gozen lady samurai warrior. Yoroi, Armor, Kabuto, Helmet, Naginata, Pole blade, Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Tomoe Gozen: this lady was a samurai warrior, whose bravery and beauty have been praised in “The tale of the Heike” (Heike Monogatari). She fought alongside her husband Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the Genpei War, which led to Taira clan’s defeat and to the establishment of the first shogunate. Her destiny, after the death of Minamoto no Yoshinaka in battle, belongs to legend.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 135mm
Shutter time: 1/400s
Aperture: F/3.5
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

MY PHOTOGRAPHY AND THOUGHTS:

As you may have noticed, reading the description of the parade, the Jidai Matsuri is a truly fascinating event with a deep meaning and a great richness of carefully studied details, which make it a unforgettable experience.
With my photographic project, that’s a strict selection of a reportage made of some hundreds of shots, I wanted to focus on the fascinating elements of the “Yoroi” (armors) and weapons worn by samurai and warriors, showing some examples of the elegance and the beauty that permeate every art of Japan.
The choice of shooting only medium close-ups is due to emphasize the details, not only of the dresses, but also of the faces and the expressions of the participants who effectively impersonate the historical figures.
There are some extras I wanted to include, because they depict some intimate moments of preparation and relaxation before the beginning of the Jidai Matsuri, that I had the chance to capture while wandering among the groups inside the Kyoto Imperial Park.
What I loved about this event, besides the beauty of the dresses and the fascinating atmosphere, has been the emotional involvement of both the participants and the attendants: the formers put a great dedication in representing their historical figures, while the latters enjoyed the festival with a polite joyfulness. All of this is a demonstration of how much the citizens of Kyoto care about the Jidai Matsuri and, in general, of how much japanese people love their traditions and their culture. I hope that the younger and the future generation will preserve this spirit for the time being.

Children of Tokiwa Gozen of the Minamoto clan. Jidai Matsuri, Festival, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Children of Tokiwa Gozen: wife of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the noblewoman Tokiwa Gozen is represented in the Jidai Matsuri with her three children, fleeing after her husband has been killed by the Taira clan. These three children, Yoshitsune, Yoritomo and Noriyori, took revenge for the Minamoto family defeating the Taira Clan in the Genpei War.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 123mm
Shutter time: 1/1600s
Aperture: F/3.5
Sensitivity: ISO800

 

HOW TO ATTEND THE JIDAI MATSURI FESTIVAL:

The Jidai Matsuri is an open event, so you can freely attend, choosing the location you prefer alongside the parade’s route. Anyway, take into account that being a very popular event it’s better to arrive early. Moreover, if you attend for free you’ll have to be standing throughout the 2 and a half hours long event, which is not exactly comfortable, so I suggest you to book a seating for about 2’000 Yen from the Kyoto City Tourism Association: “ja.kyoto.travel” (website in japanese language).

 

Preparation, some participants of the Jidai Matsuri preparing and relaxing before the event. Waragi, Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Preparation: a candid of some participants of the Jidai Matsuri, while preparing and relaxing before the event. These are the figures who will carry on the shoulder for more than two hours the two palanquins containing the spirits of the emperors Komei and Kammu.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 108mm
Shutter time: 1/200s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

Jidai Matsuri, Whispering to a friend, a participant and her horse relax before the festival. Kyoto, Japan, History, Tradition, Travel.

Whispering to a friend: one of the 2000 participants of the Jidai Matsuri takes a moment of relax with her horse, before the beginning of the event.

EXIF informations

Camera: Pentax K-5
Lens: SMC DA* 50-135mm F2.8 ED [IF] SDM
Focal lenght: 103mm
Shutter time: 1/200s
Aperture: F/4
Sensitivity: ISO400

 

PRO TIPS

  • In my opinion the best positions from which to take the most suggestive shots are inside the Kyoto Imperial Park and inside the Heian Jingu Shrine, because these locations are more in tune with the parade, rather than the modern city. Note that to reserve a nice spot, it’s crucial to book the seat waaay in advance, months before the event. I’ve had the luck to have a front row seat reserved inside the Kyoto Imperial Park, a vantage point with a perfectly clear view. Prepare to fight for a seat like that…
  • The procession is magnificent and rich of details; sometimes dozens of figures will parade in front of you all together. I suggest you to choose a shooting strategy; in my case, I’ve opted for the details, instead of the overall views, because the latters can be “overcrowded” and visually messy.
  • To separate your subjects from the background, consider to use a fast lens: sometimes they’ll be quite far from you, so the faster the better. My chosen lens has been the Pentax DA* 50-135mm f/2.8 attached to my Pentax K-3 APS-C camera (so it corresponds roughly to a 70-200mm f/4 lens on a full frame camera, but if you have an f/2.8 version so much the better).
  • The parade proceeds at a slow pace, so you won’t have much trouble focusing accurately. Try to use the continuous autofocus (AF-C) with the tracking option activated in the central area of the frame; you’ll hardly miss a shot. In my case, I chose to shoot with AF-C, selecting just the central point to nail the focus.
  • Depending on the light conditions, try to use a circular polarizer to emphasize some colors of the dresses and to eliminate some reflections on the glossy parts of the armors.
  • Have a fresh backup battery with you, or a second one inside the battery grip of your camera; have I already said the parade lasts 2 and half hours?

 

Note: a series of five of the photos of this reportage has been awarded with a nomination at the 5th FAPA – Fine Art Photography Awards in the “travel” category. I’m happy that my work has been appreciated, giving me the opportunity to show to a wider public this glimpse on the japanese culture. You can visit the contest page at the following link: “fineartphotoawards.com

About Claudio Beffa

I'm an Italian photographer and designer with a great passion for the discovery of amazing places and their history and soul. With phoclab.com, I'll tell you every step of my journey and I'll show you my best travel & landscape shots.

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