on wednesday, i went to see “jidai matsuri 時代祭” in kyoto with my mother for the first time. i could’ve seen it once or twice before, but i was too little to remember. it’s basically a shinto festival that heian jingo (shrine) 平安神宮 inaugurated in 1895 as its dedication to the foundation of kyoto, but broadly an autumn festival for kyotoites organised by the local government.
here is a brief history of our old capital of japan: kyoto as capital city was founded on october 22nd , 794 and the era reigned by emperor kammu and komei is called “heian 平安”. kyoto had been the imperial capital for 11 centuries until the imperial family moved to tokyo. the jidai matsuri reflects kyoto’s colourful history. the main attraction is a long procession, representing the eras dating back to the heian period from the meiji period. so, the festival also offers a bit of a history lesson to history-illiterate spectators like me. i cannot remember the names of key figures at all, though. there were too many emperors and shoguns (generals) who reigned over kyoto for 11,000 years.
i first imagined the festival would be like new york’s st patrick’s day. frankly, it was much smaller, much quieter and less fun than that. but yet, it was much more fascinating to see. some 2,000 people in various period costumes took part in the pageant. most of the costumes were rich in colour as well as pattern. if you had an eye for detail as a costume or textile designer, this festival would mesmerise you. it must be the best place for you to study. actually, i could not take my eyes off each foot wear they put on, some of which are so elaborate. even the saddles for horses come in all shades and hues and are made in an extravagant way.
the japanese court culture flourished in the heian period. from an aesthetic point of view, it was the period being ablaze with colour; the most vibrant colour and the most florid style were favoured and evolved by the aristocracy and upper samurai class. just like rococo, a decorative and showy maximalist manner was welcomed. that unique aesthetic value for the court life, including things like writing poetry, was called “miyabi 雅". i simply understand the coloration by its characteristic colour scheme. the flamboyant, still tasteful, colours were exquisitely applied to their fashion (it is kimono, of course) design when their textile technique reached already the highest even in the 8th century.
the people in richly coloured historical costume all walked in the procession along sanjo-dori and moved towards heian jingu. unfortunately, the weather wasn’t that cheerful for kyotoites and tourists to celebrate the special day. it became a drizzly afternoon by the time when the procession was to leave the starting point. i worried over their wet silk kimonos. spectators on the pavement had to hold their umbrellas as the procession passed by. as for me, my mother, our relatives and their friends who gathered for the festival, luckily my mother’s family house fronts on to the street so that we could watch the pageant from the window wide open, sitting on comfy chairs just like a box seat at the opera.
my first visit to the jidai matsuri was a personal discovery of our ancestors’ brilliant traditional sense to use colours. in particular, it rejoiced me with the triumph of “miyabi colour”.