Kyoto’s microclimate is the result of its being enclosed by mountains on three sides. In May, the most temperate month, one can feel the verdant greenery on the breezes that flow off the mountains’ surfaces as leaves burst on the awakening branches that clothe them. These winds usher in the Aoi Matsuri, the “Hollyhock Festival”, with its accompanying Shinto ceremonies and rituals. Other markers start to appear, such as the noryo yuka, small outdoor dining alcoves on the banks of the Kamogawa, that remind people of their position on nature’s annual course through the world, and summer’s approach.
2nd and 3rd
The number 8 was filled with meaning for the ancients. The 88th day out from the start of spring (Risshun) is called Hachijyu-hachiya, “Eighty Eight Nights”. In itself it seems insignificant, but because of the regularity of Kyoto’s seasons, it is always around this time that the morning frost changes to dew, and that means the time for sowing seeds is at hand. At tea farms the essential first pruning is done, as all of the initial buds have opened. But the visual reminder is the character for the number eight itself. It’s this [八 ], and it looks like a handheld fan unfurled. It’s said that if you take time on this day to ponder the moment, drink tea, perhaps fan yourself in anticipation of the coming summer, it will add to your days on the Earth.
Along with the Gion Matsuri and the Jidai Matsuri (the “Festival of the Ages”), the Aoi (Hollyhock) Matsuri rounds out Kyoto’s “Big Three” festivals. During the Heian era, when Kyoto’s culture was being formed, the word “matsuri” was basically synonymous with Aoi Matsuri. And around 567 CE the festival came to be celebrated with the running of a horse garlanded with bells, rung to quell the wrath of the deity mediating the harvest which, historically, had been plagued for some time. The festival took on, in a sense, a life and death dimension. The mood is more subdued today. Mackerel, a fish that signifies plenty and good fortune, is shared three ways: over vinegared rice, seasoned only with salt and vinegar, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. It’s the sharing, the joining of friends and family, that is the focus of the big three festivals today.