The Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) is one of the most famous festivals in Kyoto, taking place each year on October 22nd. The festival is primarily composed of a two kilometer, 2.5 hour-long procession of countless volunteers dressed in historical garb representing Japanese cultural history from the Meiji era all the way back to the Enryaku era in the 780’s. Painstakingly recreated and researched, going so far as to even make and dye the fabric using the same techniques as they used a thousand years ago, the procession is akin to watching a living history museum march by. Not only do famous historical figures and princesses make appearance, but warriors, priests, politicians, merchants, and commoners are all represented.
But what can we learn from the Festival of Ages? Take a look with Discover Kyoto into the history behind this wide variety of historical characters, introduced here in the order of their appearance. Get a short introduction with gorgeous visuals via video before scrolling down for further information below!
Disclaimer: The factual existence of some of the historical figures represented in the Jidai Matsuri procession cannot necessarily be proven, and what we know about their life is made up of various legends and stories, some contradictory. Some dates provided are estimations.
The Meiji Restoration Period (1868)
Meiji Imperial Troops, Drum & Fife Corps
Though the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, relinquished his power to the Emperor during what would be called the Meiji Restoration, transfers of power are rarely smooth. When disagreements arose over Yoshinobu’s role post-abdication fighting resumed between pro-shogunate and pro-imperial factions.
These young men represent the Yamagunitai, a group from the Tanba region of Kyoto who enlisted in the imperial army to fight in the ensuing Boshin War.
Katsura Kogorō (1833 – 1877):
The son of a samurai and physician of the Chōshū Domain, he was adopted into the Katsura family at age 7 and known as Katsura Kogorō for most of his life. Katsura Kogorō became a staunch imperial loyalist after receiving an education from Yoshida Shōin, a prominent intellectual of the age who was mentor to many shishi, “warriors of revolutionary purpose”. After studying western military techniques in Edo he returned to Chōshū to modernize their navy, and later returned to Edo (Tokyo) in 1858 when he was stationed at the domain’s headquarters. Unfortunately, he lost favor with the shogunate because it was suspected he had ties to radical loyalists from the Mito domain. Transferred to Kyoto, he was run out of the city by an Aizu and Satsuma domain coup, and later had to go into hiding with a geiko, (who later become his wife). Katsura Kogorō, now using the name Kido Takayoshi, was instrumental in helping form the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance of 1866 that united the two rival clans in their mission to restore the Emperor to power.
After the Meiji Restoration, he became an Imperial Advisor and participated in the Iwakura Mission that traveled to the United States and Europe to seek recognition for the new Meiji government, renegotiate the unequal treaties previously forced on Japan, and study Western politics. Upon his return he supported a constitutional government, and also served as educator to the young Emperor Meiji. During the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, he passed away of a long-standing illness.
The Seven Ministers (1863):
Wearing traveling cloaks, seven ministers allied with the sonno joi (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” pro-Imperial anti-Western influence) movement fled Kyoto in 1863 when the more moderate Satsuma and Aizu domains seized power in in the capital. Their members included Sanjō Sanetomi, Sanjōnishi Suetomo, Higashikuze Michitomi, Mibu Motonaga, Shijō Takeuta, Nishikikōji Yorinori, and Sawa Nobuyoshi.
Of most distinctive note is Sanjō Sanetomi, who after the Restoration period went on to have an illustrious career in the new Meiji government, and is even enshrined at Nashinoki Shrine next to the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Saigō Takamori (1828 – 1877):
Born in the southern Satsuma domain, Saigō Takamori (born Saigō Kokichi and not called Takamori until adulthood) lived as a low ranking samurai, part warrior part indebted peasant. Though he went to Edo in 1854 to serve the lord of the domain, Satsuma’s daimyo was a member of the Kōbu Gattai movement that supported a closer relationship between the Imperial court and the Tokugawa shogunate. Because of this, he had to flee back south when Chief Minister Ii Naosuke undertook the Ansei Purge to clear the bakufu government of imperial loyalists. Exiled to Amami Ōshima Island, he was briefly recalled but then banished again to Okinoerabu Island. Eventually pardoned, Saigō was sent to Kyoto to handle Satsuma’s affairs, where he formed an alliance with Aizu domain against rival Chōshū, who tried and failed to take control of the Imperial court in the Kinmon Incident. Dispatched to Chōshū as a leader of the punitive military force sent by the bakufu after the said incident, Saigō instead secretly met with his domain’s longtime rivals and helped arrange the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance (Satchō Alliance), which fought to topple the Tokugawa shogunate and restore imperial rule.
Saigō’s dissatisfaction at the negotiated surrender of Tokugawa power was one of the major causes of the Boshin War (1868 – 1869) that soon followed, in which he led imperial forces and took Edo (Tokyo) Castle. He later played a role in politics as part of the new Meiji government, helping abolish the han domain system and creating an army. In 1873, when the new government was debating what to do about Korea refusing to recognize the new Emperor Meiji and mistreating Japanese envoys, Saigō was firmly on the side of going to war over the slights, even volunteering to go to Korea himself and offend their culture to the point he would be killed and provide further justification for war between the two nations. Angered by his fellow politicians' refusal to support aggressive action, Saigō resigned his positions in protest and returned to his hometown.
Other sympathetic former samurai that left government positions viewed Saigō as a leader and followed him to Kagoshima, where a military school was founded. The rise of this faction in Kagoshima worried the Meiji government, and when an armed delegation was sent to disarm them fighting broke out, placing Saigō Takamori as the leader of what came to be called the Satsuma Rebellion. After a few months of battles the rebels fighting for the cause of disenfranchised samurai in a rapidly modernizing world made their last stand at the Battle of Shiroyama in 1877. During the battle Saigō Takamori was wounded, and either by his own hand or with the assistance of his subordinates, he ended his life. This brought an end to the last armed rebellion against the Meiji government and earned Saigō the moniker “the last true samurai”.
Sakamoto Ryōma (1836 – 1867):
One of the most well-known figures of the tumultuous Meiji Restoration period, Sakamoto was born in the Tosa domain (modern day Kōchi Prefecture) to a family of low-ranking samurai who had acquired their rank through mercantile success. Enrolled by his elder sister in a sword school, he is said to have become a master swordsman and went to Edo to further his studies. Returning to Tosa after Commodore Perry’s arrival, he joined friend Takechi Hanpeita’s Tosa Loyalist Party (whose slogan was later adopted by the sonno jōi), but ended up leaving the party and the domain because he thought reform shouldn’t just be undertaken in Tosa, but in the whole country. At that time, leaving one’s domain without permission was a crime punishable by death, and it is said that one of Ryōma’s sisters committed suicide to atone for her brother’s crime.
Once opposed to the modernization of the country, Sakamoto became an advocate for a modern military and democratic elements in the government after Katsu Kaishū, a man he planned to assassinate, convinced him of the need to think of the future of the country. After the Ansei Purge, with the Tokugawa bakufu cracking down on loyalists and other dissenters, Ryōma fled to Satsuma and was instrumental in organizing the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance as a neutral mediator, galvanizing southern troops against the Tokugawa shogunate. Staying in Kyoto to organize forces in the capital despite being hunted by the infamous pro-shogunate Shinsengumi troops, Ryōma escaped numerous assassination attempts. In 1866 it is said he only survived an attempt on his life at the Teradaya Inn because Oryō, an employee of the inn (and soon his wife), ran naked through the establishment to warn Ryōma she had seen assassins outside the bath, giving him and his companions time to arm themselves. Ryōma made further progress for the nation when in that same year he founded the Kameyama Shachu, later renamed Kaientai ("Maritime Support Group"), considered Japan's first private company as well as its first modern naval force. However, he was eventually struck down in 1867 at the Ōmiya Inn just before his vision for Japan’s future was achieved.
Nakaoka Shintarō (1838 – 1867):
A native of the Tosa domain, he studied swordsmanship under Takechi Hanpeita, later joining the Tosa Loyalist Party his master founded, becoming part of the sonnō jōi movement. After the less radical Aizu and Satsuma domains took power in Kyoto, Nakaoka Shintarō fled south to Chōshū with the Seven Ministers. Taking part in several key military encounters, such as the Kinmon Incident in 1864 attempting to seize the Imperial palace, he partnered with Sakamoto Ryōma’s Kaientai force and helped secure the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance. Working closely with his fellow Tosa native, Nakaoka and Sakamoto Ryōma also helped secure an alliance between Satsuma and Tosa.
After the last Tokugawa shogun resigned his power Nakaoka Shintarō travelled back to Tosa and founded a militia called the Rikuentai, modeled after Chōshū’s progressive Kiheitai group. In 1867, Nakaoka went to Kyoto to discuss future plans with Ryōma at the Ōmiya Inn. Attacked by the assassins that killed Ryōma, Nakaoka was mortally wounded and died two days later. Most accounts report that he passed away without regaining consciousness to identify the perpetrators, whose identities remains a mystery to this day.
Takasugi Shinsaku (1839 – 1867):
A son of a middle-ranked samurai of the radically pro-Imperial Chōshū domain, Takasugi Shinsaku was a student of prominent loyalist intellectual Yoshida Shōin alongside contemporaries such as Katsura Kogorō. A prominent member of the faction seeking to expel foreigners from Chōshū, Takasugi was sent by his clan to Shanghai in 1862 despite the official isolation policy, where he witnessed the effects of European colonization first hand. Prioritizing modernizing the military to combat the possibility of foreign invasion, Takasugi formed the Kiheitai, a 300-strong militia made up not of only official samurai, as was matter of course in those days, but including peasants, priests, farmers, and merchants, all ostensibly on equal footing. Though Takasugi fell afoul of certain leaders of the Chōshū domain and was imprisoned, he was soon released after the domain’s defeat by Western ships in the naval battle of the Bombardment of Shimonoseki in 1863 made it clear they needed someone to lead the modernization of their military.
Appointed Director of Military Affairs at 25, Takasugi began to focus on arming his militia with modern weaponry and promoting a more moderate view on the “expel the barbarians” part of the sonnō jōi movement in favor of focusing first on dismantling the Tokugawa shogunate. When the first punitive mission against Chōshū was launched by the shogunate in 1864, Takasugi and his allies had to go into hiding to avoid being imprisoned again by more moderate leaders, but they spent the time preparing and came back to play major roles in the Chōshū civil war of 1865. With Takasugi’s modern Kiheitai and the help of Katsura Kogorō, Takasugi became a main player in Chōshū policy, contributing to Chōshū’s victory against the bakufu forces of the Second Chōshū Expedition. This humiliating loss by the shogunate made it easier for other domains to feel confident rising up against the bakufu, and old rivals joined forces to take down the Tokugawa government. Takasugi himself did not live to see this, however, dying of tuberculosis in 1867.
Yoshimura Toratarō (1837 – 1863):
A samurai from Tosa aligned with the sonnō jōi (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” pro-Imperial anti-Western influence) movement, Yoshimura Toratarō came to Kyoto in 1862 with Sakamoto Ryōma’s party, and was involved in the Teradaya Affair. Arrested and returned to Tosa, he soon made his way back to the political turmoil of Kyoto.
When Emperor Komei declared he would travel to Yamato Province to visit the grave of the legendary first Emperor Jinmu and announce his support of the sonnō jōi cause, the sonnō jōi raised a military called the Tenchūgumi and Yoshimura Toratarō led them to seize a magistrate’s office there. This would later be called the Tenchūgumi Incident. Yoshimura Toratarō died in battle in 1863 when pro-shogunate forces retook the Tenchūgumi’s position in Yoshino.
Rai Mikisaburō (1825 – 1859):
The third son of imperial loyalist author Rai Sanyō, who published Nihon Gaishi, a history of Japan from a Confucian standpoint, Rai Mikisaburō was a Confucian scholar and poet himself. Though he studied in Edo (Tokyo) initially, he was expelled for loyalist sympathies and ended up back in Kyoto working with other pro-imperial samurai.
Though he initially kept his activities secret for the sake of his family, after his mother’s death he began participating more openly in sonnō jōi activities. However, this led to his arrest during Ii Naosuke’s Ansei Purge, a sweep of Tokugawa shogunate politics to arrest, demote, exile, and execute those found to be enemies of the bakufu. Despite pleas for clemency from high-ranking friends of his father, Rai Mikisaburō was executed in 1859.
Umeda Unpin (1815 – 1859):
A Confucian scholar born the second son of a retainer of the Obama domain, Umeda initially came south to open a school in Ōtsu, Shiga. He became a lecturer at his domain’s school in Kyoto in 1843 until a decade later when he spoke out and angered his feudal lord, who stripped him of his domain citizenship.
After Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853, he joined the sonnō jōi (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” pro-Imperial anti-Western influence) movement and harshly criticized the bakufu government. This led to his arrest during Ii Naosuke’s Ansei Purge, a sweep of Tokugawa shogunate politics to arrest, demote, exile, and execute those found to be enemies of the bakufu. Though tortured for information, Umeda Unpin reportedly remained silent, and died in prison in 1859.
Hashimoto Sanai (1834 – 1859):
The son of a Fukui clan doctor, Hashimoto Sanai first went to Osaka and then Edo (Tokyo) to study medicine, where he made the acquaintance of several prominent imperial loyalists, such as Saigō Takamori. After returning to Fukui he became the deputy head of the domain school and played a part in his clan’s government reforms.
In 1857, he served under Fukui clan lord Yoshinaga Matsudaira in Edo, but ran afoul of Chief Minister Ii Naosuke when the 13th Tokugawa shogun died and Hashimoto supported a candidate Naosuke did not approve of for the shogun’s successor. Imprisoned in the Ansei Purge, Hashimoto was executed in 1859.
Yoshida Shōin (1830 – 1859):
Now known as the teacher of several famous young men of the revolution (ishin shishi), Yoshida Shōin was born in the Chōshū domain as the second son of lower ranked samurai Sugi Yurinosuke. According to his family traditions, Shōin was adopted by his father's younger brother, Yoshida Daisuke, and inherited headship of the Yoshida family at the age of six when his sickly uncle passed away. The Yoshida family was tasked with instructing their daimyō lord in military strategy, so the young Shōin was thrown into a period of intense study from a young age to prepare him for the job.
In his early 20's Yoshida Shōin committed the then-crime of "fleeing the domain", leaving Chōshū without written permission in what was apparently an act of rebellion against the government restriction. When he returned the next year his punishment stripped him of his title and stipend, but his intellect earned him consent to study where he pleased. His choice of Edo (Tokyo) brought him to the bustling city just before Commodore Perry's black ships came to Japan and demanded the opening of the country. Together with mentor and inventor-scholar Sakuma Shōzan, Yoshida Shōin attempted to board one of the American ships in order to go West and study. Caught by the Tokugawa shogunate forces, he was imprisoned for attempting to leave the country.
Undeterred, Yoshida Shōin ran a school in prison to teach the men there, eventually being transferred back to his hometown to live under house arrest. Taking over his uncle's school to teach military strategy and politics, Yoshida Shōin is credited with the nurturing of revolutionary ideologies in men such as Katsura Kogorō, Takasugi Shinsaku, and Itō Hirobumi (Japan's first Prime Minister). In 1858, with Ii Naosuke's Ansei Purge rounding up and executing many of his contemporaries, Yoshida Shōin put aside his role as educator and took up the mantle of the assassin, calling for a revolt when a messenger of Ii Naosuke's came to Kyoto to ask for imperial support for a foreign treaty. Despite receiving little support, Shōin and a few of his students went forward with the attempt on the messenger's life, which ultimately failed. Imprisoned once more, Shōin continued to plot for the revolution against the bakufu until he was executed in 1859 at the age of 29.
Prince Konoe Tadahiro (1808 – 1898):
A member of one of the five most prestigious aristocratic families, Konoe Tadahiro was a court noble who held various positions throughout his life, most notoriously serving as Kanpaku (chief advisor to the emperor) from 1862 to 1863.
Seeking to influence the choice of the 14th Shogun, Tadahiro adopted a daughter of the Shimazu clan, Atsu-hime, in the hopes that marrying her to the 13th Shogun would enable her to influence him to choose the loyalist’s favored candidate, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
Though this did not go according to plan, Konoe Tadahiro survived the chaotic Meiji Restoration period and was appointed a high-ranking title in the new government.
EDO PERIOD (1603 - 1868)
Shogun Tokugawa’s Procession to Kyoto
Though the Tokugawa shogunate moved their base to Edo (Tokyo) when they came to power, the imperial court was still based in Kyoto. On special occasions, however, the shogunate still sent deputies on his behalf to pay his respects to the emperor, and the accompanying processions were a grand affair that could consist of as many as 1,700 people when you include the VIPs, their attendants, the military escort, entertainers, and others involved in the long journey on foot from Edo.
Kazunomiya (1846 –1877):
Kazunomiya (born Chikako) is a tragic figure in Japanese history. The eighth and youngest daughter of Emperor Ninkō, her elder brother ascended the throne as Emperor Kōmei when her father died unexpectedly a few months before Princess Kazu’s birth. At the young age of five she was engaged to Prince Arisugawa Taruhito, but certain politicians who wished to more tightly bind the Tokugawa shogunate and the Imperial court had come up with the idea of doing so through marriage. When the girl originally set to marry Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi passed away, the bakufu requested Kazunomiya take her place. Princess Kazu initially refused and her brother respected her decision, writing back that his sister could not be compelled to marry if she did not wish it. However, political pressure from other family members and high-ranking politicians led Emperor Kōmei to agree to the marriage in exchange for the Tokugawa shogunate rejecting trading treaties with the US and returning to isolationist policies. In order to pressure Princess Kazu, it was arranged that if she continued to refuse the marriage then she would have to become a nun and her brother would have to give up the throne. In the face of this, Princess Kazu “chose” to agree to the wedding, though she had several conditions of her own- such as the right to keep Kyoto palace traditions rather than conform to Edo style.
In 1862, the sixteen year old Princess Kazu made her way to Edo with her mother, attendant, and a security escort to be wed. Tensions initially ran high, particularly over the fact that Emperor Kōmei had made his sister a higher rank than her husband and her mother-in-law before she left Kyoto, but in the end it is generally considered that Iemochi and Princess Kazu had an amicable marriage. In a rare move for that time, Iemochi never publicly took a concubine.
Sadly, in 1865, Princess Kazu’s mother passed away, and in 1866 at the age of only twenty she was widowed when Iemochi died commanding the Chōshū Expedition from Osaka. As was tradition at the time, Princess Kazu took the tonsure and became a nun under the name Seikan-in no Miya, but she experienced another great loss when her brother, Emperor Kōmei, also passed away. After the Meiji Restoration and a brief return to Kyoto, she returned to Tokyo when Emperor Meiji moved the Imperial Court there in 1874, dying of beriberi in 1877 at only 31. She is remembered for her calligraphy and poetry skills as well as her unfortunate life.
Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791 – 1875):
Once the daughter of a samurai family, she was adopted into the Ōtagaki family while young, where she learned martial arts. After burying two husbands, four children, her adoptive mother and her adoptive brother, this lady-in-waiting from Kameoka Castle took the tonsure as a nun at the age of 33 at Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, where she was joined by her adoptive father.
Despite being a Buddhist nun, which ostensibly would resign her to a life lived removed from the world, Rengetsu (“Lotus Moon”) was famous for her numerous artistic skills, considered one of the best 19th century Japanese waka poets. She was also a skilled potter, painter, calligrapher, dancer, tea ceremony host, and martial artist. She stayed at Chion-in for almost a decade, but Rengetsu spent most of her later life moving between different temples and small homes to avoid being crowded by fans. “Rengetsu ware” pottery was so popular it was continued even after her death.
In the parade she is depicted before she took the tonsure.
Ike no Gyokuran (1727–1784):
Born Tokuyama Machi, Gyokuran began studying painting from a young age and was given the “art name” of Gyokuran. Working alongside her husband, nanga-style painter Ike no Taiga, Gyokuran was one of the very few women working as an established painter in the 18th century. She was also renowned as a calligrapher and poet.
Dedicated to their art, the husband and wife worked out of a studio near Yasaka Shrine, painting scrolls, fans, sliding screens, and more. Many of her and her husband’s works remain preserved to this day.
The Wife of Nakamura Kuranosuke:
Though it is more rumor than fact, a popular story of the Edo period stated that the wife of a wealthy merchant participated in the growing fashion scene in Kyoto, winning a lady’s costume contest by wearing a black kimono with a simple white under-kimono despite the other women’s colorful outfits. This anecdote is said to speak to the value the time placed on fashion innovation.
Though her birth name and most facts about her life are lost in time, Kaji was a woman in the Edo period who ran a teahouse in Gion near Yasaka Shrine. Though she was not known to have a particular teacher, she was a gifted poetess who in 1706 published the illustrated poetry anthology Leaves of Kaji (Words of Kaji), which led to her name becoming known throughout the country as the waka-singing teahouse proprietress.
Though Kaji never married, she took in a foster daughter named Yuri who continued her teahouse and was a poetess as well. Yuri’s own daughter Machi became the well-known painter Ike no Gyokuran, and the three artists are known collectively as “the three ladies of Gion”.
Yoshino Tayū (Matsuda Tokuko, 1606 – 1643):
Tayū were the beautiful artist-entertainers who held the highest rank in the Shimabara red-light district, and Yoshino Tayū was known as one of the three most elegant and cultured tayū of her time. Though not much is known of her life as fact, various legends and anecdotes exist. It is said she was first a kamuro (young girl who served as assistants to tayū) under the name Rinya, debuting as a tayū herself at age 14. Renowned for her mind and compassion as well as her looks, Yoshino Tayū was said to excel at poetry, koto, flute, flower arranging, calligraphy, and many more feminine talents.
Her name was known far and wide in relation not only to her famed beauty and abilities, but also her compassionate spirit. Stories exist such as one that says she saw a young swordsmith’s apprentice who had admired her from afar and painstakingly saved his money only to be denied entry to Shimabara for not having enough. Taking pity on the man, it is written Yoshino Tayū secretly admitted him to the district and fulfilled his fantasies. Because of her high status, Kanpaku (Chief Advisor) Konoe Nobuhiro and wealthy merchant and patron of the arts Haiya Jōeki were counted among her customers/confidants, and at age 26 she retired in order to marry Jōeki.
Yoshino Tayū received her spiritual council from Buddhist priest Nikken, donating a gate to his temple at Jōshō-ji, and when she passed away at age 38 she was buried there. Jōshō-ji temple still holds a memorial service each year in her honor in April attended by women carrying on the artistic traditions of Shimabara tayū.
Izumo no Okuni (b. 1572):
Said to be the daughter of an Izumo blacksmith, in her youth Izumo no Okuni worked as a shrine priestess at Izumo Shrine, where she was known to be skilled at performing ritual dances and songs. Okuni was dispatched to Kyoto to perform and gather funds for the shrine, and her performances of popular folk songs and more bawdy plays became so popular that she stayed in the capital despite calls from Izumo Shrine to return- though she did continue to send back the funds she had been tasked to gather.
By 1603 Izumo no Okuni was known for performing by the Kamogawa River near Shijō and at Kitano Tenmangū shrine, where she employed other women performers and outcasts such as prostitutes. Okuni taught these other women her new style of acting and led them as an all-female troupe with the assistance of patron/lover Nagoya Sansaburō, gradually developing the dramatic and eccentric theater style now known as kabuki.
Izumo no Okuni retired and disappeared from history around 1610, leaving her later years a mystery and the date of her death debated. Women were later banned from performing kabuki in 1629 under moral reform laws that conflated the troupes with prostitution, but this now all-male theater tradition got its start with Izumo no Okuni and her all-female troupe.
AZUCHI MOMOYAMA PERIOD (1573 - 1600)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Procession (1596):
This procession, with an ox-drawn cart and many warriors and courtiers, represents a scene from September, 1596. Toyotomi Hideyori, the young heir of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, officially came of age, and in celebration of this made a formal visit to the emperor.
Hideyori rides within the ox-drawn cart, and the procession is accompanied by the Five Commissioners, Asano Nagamasa, Maeda Gen'i, Mashita Nagamori, Natsuka Masaie, and Ishida Mitsunari, five daimyo lords tasked with advising and some governance over the Kyoto area provinces.
Oda Nobunaga’s Entry into Kyoto (1568):
The capital was in dire straits after ten years of chaos caused by the Ōnin War, and outside the capital the warlord Oda Nobunaga was in the process of conquering various provinces to unite them under a single banner. After requests from Emperor Ōgimachi to assist in the city’s reconstruction and from Ashikaga Yoshiaki to restore his rightful place in the Ashikaga shogunate, Oda Nobunaga marched upon Kyoto, entering the city on October 19th, 1568.
Hashiba Hideyoshi (1536/1537? – 1598):
Though he would later become leader of the country under the name Toyotomi Hideyoshi, this peasant-born warrior is represented in the Jidai Matsuri at the stage in his life when he was still a general in Oda Nobunaga’s army.
Hideyoshi first rose through the ranks of Nobunaga’s military from a simple sandal-bearing foot soldier called Kinoshita Tōkichirō to a trusted general known for his skill in negotiations and sieges, taking the new name Hashiba Hideyoshi. His crest was a golden gourd, inspired by his use of gourds as a signal at the Siege of Inabayama Castle.
After Oda Nobunaga was killed in 1582 at Honnō-ji, Hideyoshi moved quickly to defeat his betrayer, Akechi Mitsuhide, and host a grand funeral for his lord, securing his place as Nobunaga’s successor and the man who would become known as the “second great unifier”.
Niwa Nagahide (1535 – 1585):
Born in Owari Province, Niwa Nagahide served as a retainer to Oda Nobunaga from a young age, growing up alongside the man who would go on to conquer most of Japan. As one of Nobunaga’s senior retainers he took part in most of the clan’s major battles, oversaw castle construction, and eventually married Nobunaga’s adopted daughter.
When Nobunaga was killed in 1582, Niwa joined forces with Hashiba Hideyoshi (later Toyotomi Hideyoshi) to avenge their lord. For supporting Hideyoshi’s claim to Nobunaga’s legacy, he was rewarded with Echizen and Kaga Provinces, making him a daimyō lord. However, he passed away soon after in 1585, some say of illness, some say of suicide when he began to regret that the decisions he had made had not done right by the Oda clan.
Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582):
The man known as the “first great unifier” of Japan, Oda Nobunaga was born the son of the lord of the Owari Domain (modern day Aichi). Though he was known as the “Fool of Owari” in his youth, after his father’s death in 1551 he proved to be an amazingly capable commander who outmaneuvered his uncle and younger brother Nobuyuki for control of the clan.
In 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto of the neighboring Suruga Province set off towards Kyoto with an army of 40,000, yet Nobunaga managed to defeat him with only a few thousand men under his command at the Battle of Okehazama, taking on the other man’s dream of conquering the country. His personal seal, tenka fubu, meant "all the world by force of arms”.
After taking over several neighboring domains, Nobunaga marched his men into Kyoto in 1568 on the pretense of assisting the imperial court and righting a succession dispute in the Ashikaga shogunate. Accumulating even more power, Nobunaga continued to subjugate rival warlords and put down peasant and religious insurrections against him, uniting a good portion of the provinces of Japan under his rule. However, suddenly and for reasons unknown to history, he was betrayed in 1582 by his lieutenant Akechi Mitsuhide, dying at Honnō-ji temple in Kyoto.
In the course of his life in power, Oda Nobunaga initiated the career soldier system, modernized the military, put in a currency system, encouraged trade, borrowed ideas from the West, and much more, changing the course of Japan’s future even after his death.
Takigawa Kazumasu (1525 –1586):
A samurai from Ōmi Province (modern Shiga), Takigawa Kazumasu was a retainer to the Oda clan who participated in many battles under Oda Nobunaga, eventually given the title of Kantō Kanrei (Shogun's Deputy in the East) and tasked with keeping tabs on the Hōjō clan, a powerful rival clan based in Odawara.
After Nobunaga’s death in 1582, Takigawa was one of many Oda retainers who opposed the idea of Hideyoshi inheriting their lord’s legacy, but he submitted to Hideyoshi’s leadership after being defeated in battle. In 1584, Takigawa retired, became a Buddhist monk, and passed away two years later.
Shibata Katsuie (1522 – 1583):
Originally a retainer of Oda Nobunaga’s younger brother Nobuyuki, Shibata Katsuie fought and was defeated by Nobunaga in 1556. Though Nobunaga executed his younger brother, he spared Katsuie’s life out of respect for the man’s loyalty. Katsuie then swore fealty to Nobunaga, and served him well in future battles, particularly during the Siege of Chōkō-ji Castle in 1570, where he earned the nickname “Oni (Demon) Shibata”.
A trusted general, he conquered various provinces for Nobunaga, and was given Nobunaga’s sister Oichi as his wife after she was reclaimed from her first husband, who had become an enemy of her brother. Despite his desire to hunt down his lord’s betrayer after Nobunaga’s death in 1582, he was too embattled to do so.
Supporting Nobunaga’s third son, Oda Nobutaka, for succession, he joined forces with Takigawa Kazumasu to oppose Hideyoshi. Unfortunately for him, his army was decimated, and he and Oichi committed suicide together after seeing to the escape of her daughters.
Before his death, he wrote the poem: "Fleeting dream paths, in the summer night! O bird of the mountain, carry my name beyond the clouds”.
MUROMACHI PERIOD (1338 - 1573)
Muromachi Shogunate Procession:
This procession expresses the warrior culture of the 14th century Ashikaga shogunate. Though we often think of "the shogunate" as the Tokugawa family in the 17th century, there were several shogunate governments before them. Several noble family retinues who served the Ashikaga Shogunate in the Muromachi Period are represented.
Muromachi Daily Life:
This group of performers represents the style of entertainment popular amongst Kyoto citizens in the Muromachi period. Dancers, flutists, drummers, and young children in ritual clothing make up the procession.
A popular folk performance, this dance was said to be the basis of the later popularized bon odori dances that are still performed today.
YOSHINO PERIOD (1333 - 1392)
Kusunoki Masashige’s Entrance into Kyoto (1333):
This procession represents the triumphant return of Emperor Go-Daigo to the capital after his exile by the shogunate for plotting against them. Accompanied by his General Commander Kusunoki Masashige, the loyal retainer who dedicated his life to the Emperor’s rule, the imperial procession moved from Kobe to Kyoto in 1333.
Kusunoki Masashige (1294 – 1336):
A semi-legendary samurai general who served the emperor-in-exile Go-Daigo, Kusunoki is held up as an example of the ideal warrior willing to lay down his life for his lord no matter his personal beliefs.
When Emperor Go-Daigo was exiled, legend said a dream in which he found shelter under a camphor tree (kusunoki) led him to Kusunoki, whose strategic mind and defense of key positions allowed Go-Daigo to return to the capital in triumph in 1333. However, Go-Daigo’s later reforms and rule made him unpopular, and one of his other generals, Ashikaga Takauji, rebelled against him.
In 1336, Takauji and his army were set to assault Kyoto, so Kusunoki advised the Emperor to retreat to Mt. Hiei and ally with the warrior monks there so that they could trap Takauji in Kyoto and defeat him that way. When Emperor Go-Daigo rejected Kusunoki’s battle advice, the loyal retainer marched knowingly to his death in battle against Takauji’s superior forces.
LADIES FROM THE MIDDLE AGES (1180 - 1600)
This group of women represents the traditional 15th century dress and profession common to the women of northern Ōhara village, who came into the capital to sell firewood and flowers.
This group of women represents the traditional 15th century dress and profession common to the women of western Katsura village, who came into the capital to sell produce such as fish and candy.
Yodogimi (1567 – 1615):
Yodogimi, called Chacha as a child, was the eldest of three daughters born to samurai lord Azai Nagamasa and Oichi, the younger sister of Oda Nobunaga. After her father betrayed his brother-in-law by honoring his clan’s traditional allegiance to the rebellious Asakura clan, he returned Oichi and her daughters to Nobunaga while under siege before committing ritual suicide.
After her mother’s death alongside her stepfather Shibata Katsuie a decade later, teenaged Chacha became the ward of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who had commanded the troops that saw to the deaths of both her natural parents. Soon enough she was made his concubine and came to be called Yodogimi, or “The Lady of Yodo Castle”.
In 1593, she became the mother of the aging Toyotomi’s sole biological male heir, Hideyori. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s death Yodogimi and her son were based in Osaka Castle, where they attempted to revive the Toyotomi clan’s power. However, they were besieged by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1615, and both were said to have committed suicide as the castle burned, signaling the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate and the end of the Warring States period.
Wife of Fujiwara no Tameie (Abutsu-ni, 1222? – 1283):
Now known as a famous writer and poet, this woman is also an example of how legal court proceedings worked in the Kamakura period. A lady-in-waiting at court, around 1253 she became the second wife of the poet Fujiwara Tameie, heir to the famous poet Fujiwara Teika, bearing him a son named Tamesuke. Her husband passed in 1275, and the rights of primogeniture dictated that her stepson would inherit all of Tameie’s possessions despite her assertion that her husband had wished for Tamesuke to inherit a particular estate and its poetry-related contents.
In order to make her claim, Abutsu-ni, who had followed tradition and taken the tonsure as a nun after her husband’s death, made the long and perilous journey from Kyoto to Kamakura, the seat of the government at the time, in order to petition for her son. The poetry diary she kept along the way, Izayoi Nikki (The Waning Moon Diary), is studied to this day.
Though it took twenty long years and came after Abutsu-ni’s death, the courts eventually found against her son in favor of stepson Nijō Tameuji. Ironically, Nijō’s branch of the poetry tradition was eventually eclipsed by the Reizei, the branch Tamesuke founded.
For the parade she wears the traveling attire of a noblewoman of her time, complete with a veiled hat to ward off insects.
Shizuka Gozen (1165–1190?):
A shirabyōshi, a type of female court dancer known for performing in male regalia to Buddhist prayer songs and imayō nature poetry, Shizuka Gozen was the daughter of another accomplished shiyabyōshi, Iso no Zenji. She first rose to prominence after it was said her ritual dance was able to call rain where 100 Buddhist monks and 99 other dancers had failed. It was during a performance that she first caught the eye of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the legendary warrior who would become her lover.
Unfortunately, Yoshitsune had to flee Kyoto in 1185 after the end of the Genpei War when his relations with his elder brother Yoritomo soured, leaving the pregnant Shizuka Gozen behind. Seized by Yoritomo’s forces and brought to Kamakura, some tales say when she was forced to dance for Yoritomo she did so to a song expressing her desire to be beside Yoshitsune once more and only the intervention of her captor’s sympathetic wife spared her execution then and there. Yoritomo declared if Shizuka Gozen’s child was a daughter it would be allowed to live, but if it were a son it would be killed.
Sadly, Shizuka Gozen bore Yoshitsune’s son, and Yoritomo subsequently had the child killed. Shizuka Gozen herself was made to take the tonsure as a nun and sent back to Kyoto. Her lover, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, died by his own hand when betrayed and surrounded by enemies in 1189. Shizuka Gozen and her tragic life are featured in numerous popular plays.
KAMAKURA PERIOD (1192 - 1333)
Yabusame is a type of Japanese archery carried out on horseback, and the men of this procession are dressed in the hunting garb of yabusame archers from the 13th century.
This scene represents the Jōkyū War in 1221, when retired emperor Go-Toba sought to wrest control of the country away from the military government in Kamakura. In order to disguise his efforts to gather warriors from across the provinces, he pretended to be calling men to train for a yabusame contest.
Unfortunately for the retired emperor, his rebellion was defeated and he died in exile.
FUJIWARA PERIOD (894 - 1185)
Noble Fujiwara Courtiers’ Procession to Court:
From the mid-Heian period onwards, the illustrious Fujiwara family all but dominated court positions both militaristic and intellectual. This procession represents Fujiwara family ministers making a formal visit to the imperial court.
LADIES FROM THE HEIAN PERIOD (794 - 1185)
Tomoe Gozen (1157?–1247?):
Tomoe Gozen is said to have been a female samurai (onna musha) in the 12th century whose exploits in the Genpai War are detailed in the classic Heike Monogatari. Alongside lord and lover Minamoto no Yoshinaka, Tomoe Gozen was promoted to lead commander and described to have “performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors”.
When Minamoto no Yoshinaka attempted to take advantage of the military chaos and take control of the Minamoto clan, capturing Kyoto, his rival cousin Yoritomo, then acting leader, sent brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori to defeat him, culminating in the Battle of Awazu in 1184.
It is written that Tomoe Gozen fought bravely, but that when Yoshinaka realized he was surrounded and about to die he sent Tomoe away, considering it shameful to die beside a woman. Though reluctant to leave her lord, she finally quit his side and beheaded an illustrious enemy warrior as a last show of strength and dedication.
Various accounts exist about what happened to her after that battle; from being forced by an enemy to become his concubine to death of old age as a nun praying for the repose of her lord’s soul.
The heroine of a tragic story of star-crossed lovers, Yokobue was said to be a lady-in-waiting of Kenreimon-in, the Empress Taira no Tokuko (1155–1213). She and an imperial palace guard named Takiguchi no Tokiyori fell in love, but the guard’s father did not approve of the match and forbade them from marrying. Unable to choose between his love of Yokobue and his duty to his father, the young man quit the palace guard at nineteen years old and went to a temple in Arashiyama to become a monk.
Though Yokobue traveled all the way to see him and called out his name, he was afraid his heart would waver if he met her and commanded the gatekeeper to tell her that no one who answered to that name was present, as he had technically taken a new Buddhist name when he entered the temple. Some versions of her tale say that distraught and heartbroken, she became a nun herself, while others say that she threw herself into the nearby Oi River and drowned, unable to live on.
In this procession, she is dressed for her journey to the temple.
Tokiwa Gozen (1138 – 1180):
Tokiwa Gozen was a 12th century noblewoman who was the wife of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, samurai general and leader of the powerful Minamoto clan, one of two powerful political families at the time alongside the Taira. Following the Heiji Rebellion in 1159 in which Yoshitomo’s attempted coup against the Emperor was foiled by the loyalist Taira clan, Yoshitomo was killed and Tokiwa Gozen was forced to flee with her three sons.
It is said that in exchange for the safety of her children and mother Tokiwa Gozen became the concubine of Taira no Kiyomori, the leader of the Taira clan who had defeated her husband. To attempt to insure they would not meddle in political affairs her children were sent to different temples to be raised as monks. Her youngest son, Yoshitsune, who was but a baby during the rebellion, would grow up at Kurama-dera temple before uniting with his brothers Yoritomo and Noriyori to take revenge for the Minamoto clan, defeating the Taira clan in the Genpei War.
Though not much is known of her later life, it is said Tokiwa Gozen remarried to a member of the Fujiwara family. Tokiwa Gozen is seen in the Jidai Matsuri in the same manner as she is usually depicted in art, journeying through the snow with two young children in tow and baby at her breast.
Murasaki Shikibu (973 or 978 – 1014 or 1031):
The woman known as Murasaki Shikibu (“Murasaki” meaning “Purple”, a nickname for court, and “Shikibu” or “Ministry of Ceremonies”, after her father’s rank at court) was a 11th century minor noblewoman who served as a lady-in-waiting and is famous for writing what is said to be the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Though some sources suggest her true name may have been Fujiwara no Takiko, the truth remains unknown because written documents tended to only refer to women by the names they used at court or their relation to the men in their lives.
Unlike most women of her time, Murasaki was quite well educated by her father. She married in the late 990’s and bore a daughter, but her wealthy husband died in a cholera epidemic two years later. As she gained a reputation as an intelligent author Murasaki Shikibu was invited to court to serve as a lady-in-waiting in the salon of Empress Shōshi (Fujiwara no Shōshi), second wife to Emperor Ichijō. Murasaki was placed with Shōshi by the young empress’ father, distant relation Fujiwara no Michinaga, who wished to surround his daughter with educated and cultured women to rival the first Empress Teishi’s ladies. As she was gifted with written Chinese, long considered the domain of men, Murasaki earned the nickname "Our Lady of the Chronicles" for instructing Shōshi in the language and using it in her writing.
While at court Murasaki continued to write chapters of The Tale of Genji, and they would be circulated among the ladies to read, copied and passed along to those curious to learn more of the adventures of the main character, the handsome playboy prince Hikaru Genji. Evidence suggests that Murasaki did not particularly enjoy court life herself, however, considering many disparaging comments in her writing about the drunken behavior of male courtiers, the rivalries between women, and the dullness of the reserved Shōshi’s court.
When Empress Shōshi’s husband died in 1011 the Empress is said to have moved to a mansion along Lake Biwa, accompanied by Murasaki, who devoted herself to solitude and writing. Historians differ on the date of her death, though most think it may have been shortly after the move, in 1014. Her daughter became a well-known poet in her own right. In the procession, Murasaki Shikibu is depicted sitting alongside fellow author Sei Shonagon.
Sei Shōnagon (966–1017/1025):
The court lady known as Sei Shōnagon (“Sei” taken from the first kanji in her family name, and “Shōnagon” the court rank of Lesser Councilor of State) began life as a mid-rank noblewoman, the daughter of Kiyohara no Fukayabu. After a possible marriage in her mid-teens and bearing a son, she may have divorced, residing in the imperial court from her late twenties as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi, first wife of Emperor Ichijō. During her time at court Sei Shōnagon became famous for her zuihitsu style of essay writing. Her loosely connected observational essays, once passed around amongst the courtiers of the palace to read bit by bit, are now compiled as The Pillow Book.
Within the pages of The Pillow Book Sei Shōnagon writes cleverly about events at court that involved Empress Teishi and her group of lady attendants, clothing trends, poetry, and her opinions on the rituals of courtship, intellectual conversation, affairs between courtiers, and many other topics, making the writings a valuable peek into the way Heian period nobility spent their time. Though they likely did not interact directly much due to serving different Empresses, Sei Shōnagon and Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, are considered literary rivals.
After the death of Empress Teishi in childbirth in 1000, Sei Shōnagon retired from court life and finished her writings for The Pillow Book. Records concerning her fate turn scarce, but some believe she married a provincial governor and had a daughter, while others believe she lived out the rest of her life as a nun.
Ono no Komachi (c. 825 – c. 900):
Born in the early Heian period, most facts about Ono no Komachi’s life can only be speculated on, with numerous legends and stories that say different things about her childhood, her time at court, and her old age. Scholars agree she served in the imperial court, though accounts differ as to her rank. What survives beyond details of her life is her reputation as a beauty unparalleled as well as her legacy as a skilled poet, counted as one of the Rokkasen (Six Poetry Immortals) of her period and as one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry designated in 1112. Her preserved works all deal with feelings bittersweet and love most passionate, and many legends exist concerning love affairs with other courtiers.
One popular tale, the “Tale of One Hundred Nights”, says that when the high-ranking Fukakusa no Shōshō sought to be her lover she told him to prove his dedication by making his way to her every night for one hundred nights, which he did whether rain or snow until he collapsed and died on the ninety-ninth night. Some say that as a sort of karmic punishment for her fickle youth she wandered ugly and abandoned in her senior years. Though numerous theater plays and legends abound concerning Ono no Komachi, she remains a mysterious figure from over a thousand years past.
Wake no Hiromushi (730 - 799):
Considered the inspiration for the Japanese orphanage, Wake no Hiromushi was a noblewoman in the 700’s who hailed from a respected Buddhist family renowned for their dedication to serving the Emperor. Her brother, Wake no Kiyomaro, was a famous statesman at the imperial court, and Hiromushi served Retired Empress Kōken, later becoming a nun under the name of Hōkin-ni after the death of her husband. When a terrible famine swept over the capital and left countless children without family, Hiromushi herself was said to have taken in 83 orphans and brought them up as if they were her own flesh and blood.
Unfortunately, her brother became embroiled in court intrigue when he opposed the corrupt monk Dōkyō who was seeking to have himself named the next emperor despite not being from the imperial family. Though Hiromushi was appointed to consult with an oracle, she was too ill to make the long journey and her brother Wake no Kiyomaro was sent out in her stead. Because the oracle’s words stated Dōkyō should not become Emperor, the angry monk had Kiyomaro exiled to Kagoshima and his sister Hiromushi sent away to Hiroshima, stripping both of their ranks and family names. One charming tale says that the orphans she had raised continued to send her gifts even in exile.
Eventually, Dōkyō’s plot failed and the two were recalled to the capital in 770, advising the next Emperor dutifully. Her brother’s advice led to moving the capital to Kyoto in 794, and the two siblings are remembered as exemplary citizens to this day.
Kudaraō Myōshin (737 - 815):
This Chief Lady-in-Waiting in the court of Emperor Kanmu was a member of the Kudaraō (also called the Kudara no Konikishi), an immigrant clan in Japan. The Kudaraō were descended from Zenkō, a son of the final king of Baekje (one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea). Daughter of minor nobleman Kudaraō Rihaku, Myōshin married the high-ranking Minister of the Right, Fujiwara Tsugutada, and bore him a son named Fujiwara Takatoshi.
It is said that she was a trusted confidante of Emperor Kanmu, who issued an edict in 790 that declared the Kudaraō clan to be relatives of his by marriage due to his mother also possessing familial ties to Baekje. This official recognition allowed Myōshin to be promoted to the position of Lady-in-Waiting despite not being born to one of the more higher-ranking noble families of the time. From her new position, Myōshin helped her clan by introducing other women to the imperial court.
Her costume in the Jidai Matsuri is representative of the Chinese influenced court regalia of the Nara period and early Heian period.
ENRYAKU PERIOD (782 - 806)
This procession depicts the victorious return of General Sakanoue Tamuramaro and his men from conquering indigenous tribes in northeastern Japan.
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758 – 811):
A samurai general who served Emperor Kanmu in the late 8th century, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro is best known as the man who led the campaign to conquer the tribes of Emishi people who lived in northeastern Japan, an area not yet considered part of the imperial nation at the time. After Emperor Kanmu’s death he served several successive Emperors in a military capacity as well.
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro is also linked to the famous temple of Kiyomizu-dera, whose teachings say that when the general was hunting in the mountains for a deer to offer up as a prayer for his wife’s health, he encountered the monk Enchin, who gave him a lecture on the sanctity of life and converted him to worship of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. The hall that he paid to have raised on that mountain later became the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex considered one of Kyoto’s top three tourist attractions.
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro passed away in 811 at age 54, though some say his spirit still protects the old capital to this day.
Court Nobles’ Procession:
Court nobles of the 8th century are assembled in this group wearing the color-coded robes of their ranks, depicted en route to pay respects to the Emperor for the first day of the New Year.
Offerings to the Deities:
Following the historical figures are Shinto priests and men who carry sacred offerings that will be offered up to the deities at Heian Jingū, the shrine at the end of the parade route.
Procession Preceding the Omikoshi:
Marching in front of the portable omikoshi shrines are gagaku musicians who play ritual festival music as well as young children in bugaku dance costumes and parishioners in traditional garb.
Omikoshi Portable Shrine Procession:
The Heian Jingū omikoshi carry the deified spirits of Emperor Komei, the last Emperor who ruled in Kyoto before the imperial family moved to Edo/Tokyo, and Emperor Kanmu, the Emperor who had the capital moved to Kyoto back in 794.
During festival periods the deified spirits, which are usually enshrined safely in the shrine’s main sanctuary, are temporarily transferred to omikoshi palanquins to be carried around for worship by the people.
These women from the Shirakawa River basin beneath Mt. Hiei traditionally gathered flowers to sell in the capital. The women in this procession are depicted bearing baskets of flowers to be given as gifts at the Imperial Palace.
Company of Archers:
Acting as the guards of the omikoshi, these archers follow up the rear of the procession. Men of the ancient Kyoto areas of Minami Kuwata and Funai were known as excellent archers, and were said to have guarded the imperial procession when the capital was transferred to Kyoto. In the Jidai Matsuri, they continue to protect the Emperor’s spirit.