Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun. Nov 15, 2014

Ainu creation folklore and cloud symbolism

According to Ainu mythic poetry, the world was created when oil floating in the ocean rose like a flame and became the sky. What was left turned into land. Vapor gathered over the land and a god was created. From the vapor of the sky, another god was created who descended on five-colored clouds. Out of those clouds, the two gods created the sea, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. The two gods married and produced many gods including two shining gods—the Sun god and the Moon god, who rose to Heaven in order to illuminate the fog-covered dark places of the world.

Okikurmi of the Saru region is a semidivine hero who descended from Heaven to help humans. Humans lived in a beautiful land but did not know how to build fire or make bows and arrows. Okikurmi taught them to build fire, to hunt, to catch salmon, to plant millet, to brew millet wine, and to worship the gods. He married and stayed in the village, but eventually returned to the divine land.

Ainu historical heroes include Kosamainu and Samkusainu. Kosamainu, who lived in eastern Hokkaido, led an Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He destroyed ten out of the twelve Japanese bases but was killed in 1457. Samkusainu organized Ainu in the southern half of the island during a 1669 uprising, but after two months they were destroyed by Matsumae forces armed with guns.

Source: Ainu (

The above myth represents just one of the many folkmyths transmitted by their epic poetic oral traditions.

The Ainu have handed down a vast body of oral traditions. The main categories are yukar and oina (longer and shorter epic poems in literary Ainu), uwepekere and upasikma (old tales and autobiographical stories, both in prose), lullabies, and dance songs. Yukar usually refers to heroic poetry, chanted mainly by men, dealing with demigods and humans. It also includes oina, or kamui yukar, shorter epics chanted principally by women about the gods. The Saru region of south central Hokkaido is particularly known as the homeland of many bards and storytellers.

Yukar was narrated by the fireside for a mixed gathering of men, women, and children. Men sometimes reclined and beat time on their bellies. Depending upon the piece, yukar lasted all night or even for a few nights. There were also festival songs, group dance-songs, and stamping dances.

This myth showing the tradition of divine descent on a cloud, as well as a long tradition of using cloud patterns on their clothing show the Ainu’s connection to the Far Eastern or Northeast Asian tradition where cloud symbolism and descent from the sky or heavens of deities, sages and ancestral heroes, is a strong and widespread genealogical and mythical traditional motif associated with the ancient Mongols, Udegeys, Manchurians, and the Jurchen Tartars, Han Northern Chinese (spiral motifs better known as thunder patterns) and possibly proto-Mongol-Tartars before them. The concept must have disseminated across Eurasia along trade routes in fairly early prehistoric times as India’s Krishna and other deities, and Buddhist imagery of divinities, sages and the Dunhuang celestial beings, depicted as descending or seated upon clouds, are later disseminated back to East Asia and Japan (see Amida’s descent, celestial beings, and the use of the cloud motif as an artistic convention).

Jomon "dogu" ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif

Jomon “dogu” ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif Photo: Heritage of Japan archives

It may have been a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan, although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all through East Asia, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol.”

Katsurano,Yamanashi prefecture, Middle Jōmon(2500-1500BC), Fuefuki City Board of Education

This cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol” as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud and storm/thunder meander patterns.


The Legend of Sanai Isoba: The fire cult and rituals, fire-bringing visitors and the noro fire custodians of Yonaguni Island

… excerpted from Ryukyu Survey 1960 ~51~ By Naioichi Kokubu and Erika Kaneko

Sanai-Isoba is said to have lived on top of the rocky hill top


Sanai-Isoba. In local tradition the key figure is the female chieftain Sanai-Isoba.

Ikema and Arazato (1957:46) explain the name as a combination of the given female name Isoba with the place-name Sanai which in turn denotes the place of the gajumaru’ (ficus retusa, small-leafed banyan).

Sanai-Isoba is a female of superhuman stature and strength; she performed astonishing feats and taught the islanders agriculture and improved ways of life. She also established her four brothers as village heads of Donanbaru, Dateg, Dannu, and Tebaru. She is said to have gone abroad t oishigaki and Iriomote, thereby initiating a cultural pattern, whereby the less advanced ust learn from their superiors, viz. the Okinawans from the Chinese, the Miyakoans from the Okinowans and so forth, isolated, marginal Yonaguni was the lowest rung on the ladder.
Is Sanai-Isoba a historical person and if so when did she live? Every Yonaguni child can point out the field ‘where her house once stood’ and knows the location of her grave where under a large tree village trials were held until quite recently Sannai Isoba is worshipped in a ritual which takes place once a ear. The high ranking Chimafuka family consider her their ancestor and until a generation ago reckoned from her its matrilineal descent.

All Yonagunian ships call at a place called Ohatake at Sonai village, suggesting an ancestral place of worship, on Iriomote island.

Around 1700, Keraikedagusuku family were sent by the central government to the island of Yonaguni to rule, and they were called Master of Yonaguni (confirmed by the genealogy of the family. Lord of Iriomote

Yonaguni history is shrouded in complete mystery. Neither local traditions, nor outside sources provide reliable data for a reconstruction. Official written sources like the court gazette of the ‘Shuri ofu’ (AD 1707) offer no detailed information on the outlying Yayeyama islands, let alone isolated Yonaguni. The Yaeyama to yurai ki and other locally compiled documents , originally in 7 volumes, was lost in the tidal wave of AD 1771; and it was subsequenty reconstructed by order of the officials Miyara, Ishigaki and Ohama.

Is Sanai-Isoba a historical person and if so when did she live? Every Yonaguni child can point out the field ‘where her house once stood’ and knows the location of her grave where under a large tree village trials were held until quite recently.

Sannai Isoba is worshiped in a ritual which takes place once a year. The high ranking Chimafuka family consider her their ancestor and until a generation ago reckoned from her its matrilineal descent.”

A depiction of female priests of Okinawa (Tokyo National Museum in Ueno)

Note: Details from the story check out with written histories from the Shuri court in Ryukyu or Okinawa, and put Sanai-Isoba’s rule at 1500 AD, but the extent of her powers are seriously questioned, given that Yonaguni and Yaeyama were recorded to have been taken in an invasion by Nakayama Kanemaru who conquered Lord Oyake Akahachi in that year.

From the Nippon-kichi article, “Yonaguni” which describes Sana-Isoba as Empress:

“Yonaguni (Yona Country) was an ancient state that once existed on Yonagunijima (Yonaguni Island) at the westernmost end of Okinawa Prefecture. The oldest archeological remains verified there are the Tsuguruhama-Iseki. They were thought to be from the late Eolithic age, but recent research shows they may date back to 4400 years ago.

No earthenware has been excavated from this site, which suggests that the people who lived here practiced a culture where pottery was not used. In recent years, further sites have been discovered that lie under water, which may lead to some interesting correlations.

The history of Yonaguni is still vague, but it is known that in the 11th century, the people living in this country established settlements on plateaus. It is also thought that in the 14th century the culture and civilization of Yonaguni further developed as a result of its position as a marine crossroads.

In 1522, Yonaguni was ruled by the empress Sanai Isoba, but fell before vanishing completely under the domination of the Ryukyu Dynasty. The lost history of Yonaguni is still wrapped in a mystery, and leaves many questions unsolved.”

According to Nicolas Tranter’s “The Languages of Japan and Korea” the languages of Yonaguni and of the main Yaeyama District an Yaeyama (Ishigaki)islands are not mutually intelligible, and that the people of Yonaguni used to feel an affinity to Taiwan and mainland Japan, rather than to Yaeyama Island from which Yonaguni Islanders have been centrally controlled. In 1477, fishermen from the Korean peninsula are said to have drifted to an island ruled by a female ruler called Sanai-Isoba.

Although Sanai-Isoba is described as an Empress in some quarters, it is more likely that she was a noro shaman prietess.

George H. Kerr in his book “Okinawa, the history of an island people” writes of an ancient cult that he calls a “living fossil” of a prehistoric age.

“From legendary times until the present day the noro priestess has exercised a powerful influence in the Ryukyuan community. until 1879 a daughter or sister of the king at Shuri usually assumed the role of the chief high priestess as intercessor between the spirit world and the king’s household,and was often an important counselor in royal affairs.
It was the noro’s duty to preserve the fire on the hearth. It can be imagined with what difficulty fire was transported from island to island in primitive days, and what hardships a community suffered if the precious flames were extinguished by accident. A daughter in each household was assigned the task of conserving and feeding the hearth” fire. Fire was a communal treasure, in itself a living thing, handed on from generation, to generation. A taboo system grew up around the office of the fire-custodian. She was expected to remain a virgin and was thought to be in close communication with the ancestors from whom fire descended. When new households were establishes, fire was transferred from the family home to the new dwelling or kindled anew with ceremony. In this way the continuity of the fire came to represent blood relationships and family continuity as well. The custodian of the fire upon the oldest hearth in the community assumed an official distinction; her office was hereditary, passing usually to a female child of the noro’s brother. A plot of land was set aside for he support. Thank offerings from the community enlarged her income. Within her house, three hearthstones served as a center of worship, for these formed the locus of the root deity (ne-gami) of the village.
It has been suggested that in ancient days fire was always made by striking stones together and that, through association the stones themselves became sacred. Another theory suggests that the three stones originally were used to support the earthenware pots over the fire and so became associated with it. It is noteworthy that the stones are brought from the seashore, no matter how far inland the house or village altar may be, and that among the pantomimic seasonal dances performed by okinawan villagers, there usually is one which tells a legend of the “fire-bringing visitors.”

Kerr also describes of the noro priestess institution:

Vestments of white cloth (symbolizing ritual cleanliness) and a string of beads (including the magatama or curved jewels) have been symbols of the noro’s office since prehistoric times. her duties require care of the hearth fire, worship of the ancestors through ritual devotion, and divination to settle upon auspicious days for marriage, burial, travel, or the simple tasks of the agricultural community.”

While the noro has all but disappeared at Naha and Shuri, the institution still commands respect as diviner and intercessor for the common man in the country villages and in the outlying islands, where she guards the ritual objects on the sacred heath and attends springs and sacred groves associated with the welfare and protection of the village life.

Kerr is of the view that this noro institution is a relic matriarchal cult similar to those neolithic cults “once found in many regions of the Eurasian land-mass long before the literate and historic cultures of China, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean areas were evolved. The sacred groves, the springs and wells, the oracular shrines, and the guardian priestesses of British Isles find close counterpart in the 20th-century mysteries of the noro cult.”

In Ryukyu Kingdom before 1945, he writes of the probable origins of the noro priestesses — “in this we have a form of ancient religious practice (shamanism) common to the Ural-Altaic people settled across the Eurasian landmass, from northern Europe to the Pacific shores of Siberia, and down the Korean peninsula. Thus in the realm of religious life there would seem to be evidence of ancient cultural relationships linking the early settlers of Ryukyu with the early Japanese, and perhaps with the Continent through southwestern Japan and Korea.”

Kerr also wrote of the important role of fire before 1945 to Ryukyu Kingdom peoples from the Ryukyu Shinto-ki source:

Origin of the ancestral fire and ancestors

According to the Ryukyu Shinto-ki, (about 1603) at the beginning of time two deities named Shineri-kyu and a female named Amai-kyu. in due time, they built huts side by side. Although they indulged in no sexual intercourse, the female deity Amami-kyu became pregnant, thanks to the influence of a passing wind. Three children were born to her. The eldest, a son became the first ruler of the islands; the second, a girl became the first noro or priestess; and a third, a son, became the first of the common people. Fire, which was essential for their well-being, was obtained “from the Dragon Palace,” traditionally believed to rest on the bottom of the sea.
With this simple tale the Okinawans provide for the virgin birth of demigods who personify the essential social functions of administration, religious practice, and economic production. The Dragon Palace episode hints at a folk-memory that that at sometime in the dim past the fire treasured on every hearth was brought with religious care from somewhere over the open seas.
[the Okinawan scholar iha Fuyu, who devoted much time to an analysis of the early records, language and legend to discover the origins of okanwan people and their prehistory. In the story of the two progenitores of the okinawan people, he detected a fable emboying the meeting and blending if two peoples, possibly in the island of Amami oshima. The name of the female deity was Amami-kyu, which by a process of linguistic analysis, he identifies with a fishing people from kyushu who moved into Oshima and thence pushed on southward unto okinawa. The people of Oshima say they are descended from Amami-dake, who created Amami-Oshima. Some of the Omoro songs refer to the Amami-ya (“Dwelling of the Ama-bo” or fishers’ community).

According to the legendary history of one line of paramount local chieftains – singled out and styled a “royal house” called the Tenson dynasty, their first king called Shunten was descended from the gods who ruled for “seventeen thousand years.”

One version of the Tametomo legend says that Tametomo was sailing one day between two Izu islands when he was blown far out to sea, drifting at last in the storm’s wake to Okinawa.
There he and his men were welcomed by a local chieftain, the Lord of Osato, with whose daughter he contracted a marriage. Shunten was born of that union. This was a temporary arrangement; he was to get back to the wars in Japan, and after ien vain attemot to take his Okinawan wife and child with him, he and his men left Okinawa.

…we must note the existence in the Ryukyus of many stories of the sun goddess Amaterasu. One of these repeats the tradition into a great cave and of her return to bring light to the world after fearful darkness. In japan this legend is associated with a cave near the Ise Grand shrines in the Shima Peninsula; in Ryukyu it is associated with a deep hillside cavern overlooking the sea on the eastern shores of Iheya island. This legend of Ama no Iwa To may have been introduced from Japan in later years. The cave is still held sacred by the local priestesses, and the Okinawans have not lost pride in repeating local beliefs that the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu began his great north-eastward conquest of Japan from this minor island in the Ryukyus.”

The custom of planting a paulownia “princess tree” at the birth of a baby girl



In Japan (especially Kyoto, Nara and Osaka), there remains a custom of sending over a kimono dresser made of paulownia wood with the bride as she settles into her new marital home. This tradition is a relic from olden days when the aristocratic and elite families would plant several paulownia trees at the birth of a girl. The kiri or paulownia tree, also known as the Empress Tree or Princess Tree, is native to western and central China, and the custom of planting the tree, initially reserved for the aristocracy and later for the wealthy, at the birth of a girl spread from there to Korea and Japan:

“Paulownia tomentosa (also known as the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree) is a deciduous tree in the genus Paulownia, native to central and western China, but invasive in the US… In China, an old custom is to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry.
Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. In legend, it is said that the Phoenix will only land on the Empress Tree and only when a good ruler is in power. Several Asian string instruments are made from P. tomentosa, including the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum zithers” – Empress Tree

From an article on Mishimachi’s pawlonia craftsmen “In love with paulownia“:

“Paulownia makes a good dowry.

Takeshi Suzuki, chief of the Planning Section at the Mishima-machi Town Hall, recalls: “In Mishima-machi they used to call paulownia ‘gold wood’ because you could pretty much sell the wood from one paulownia tree and buy a new car with the proceeds. When you gave birth to a daughter, you’d plant three paulownia trees, so that they’d be grown by the time she was ready to marry, and you could use them as dowry.” Back in the 1970s, a rich person was someone who owned a lot of paulownia trees. But all good things must come to an end. After imports yanked the rug out from under the paulownia market, the wood from a single paulownia tree was only worth a few hundred thousand yen….

Women all over Japan are in agreement that the best wood for a chest of drawers is the Aizu paulownia of Mishima-machi, because a kimono must be stored in a high-quality chest. The paulownia goods of Mishima-machi are all made of locally grown Aizu paulownia, as are the fine-quality paulownia chests on display at famous national museums all over Japan”

See also the article “Paulownia history” on the uses and significance of the paulownia tree for Japan and China:

Furniture, made of paulownian wood is not rare in China. On the contrary, it is considered that not even before, but also in the present, there is not a Chinese house without a furniture made of this legendary tree. Ceertainly, many other applications of paulownian wood are known. The famous musical instruments, which have been a true mystery for the Europeans, first stepped in the unexplored China and Japan were only one of them . Even the treasures of the Japanese culture – the magicians of singing and dance – geisha, used paulownia to strengthen their charm. Part of the accessories for each of them was thin, specially treated and dried branch of paulownia, which they used to make their eyebrows up, creating an unattainable mysteriousness of the look.

Certainly, we can not omit the fact, that paulownia is a beautiful tree – with its large velvet smooth leaves and bright purple blossoms, it is worthy decoration of every park or garden. In China and Japan this kind of use dates from centuries and in a sense it is a national tradition.

Emblem of the Prime Minister's Office

Emblem of the Prime Minister’s Office

Actually how paulownia is tied to the history and being of these countries, is understood from the fact, that it is a part even of the official political life. The Japanese, who like aesthetics, as the symbols, have chosen paulownia precisely for an emblem in the prime minister’s office – this is so called „mon“ – a word, used to indicate and underline one’s personal or family identity; its meaning in fact, is close to “coat of arms“ and carrying approximately the same messages. So – the coat of arms in the prime minister’s office in Japan is a stylized picture of paulownia. It is hardly to find more definite manner to express the national importance of paulownia for the Japanese people by its presence on the Order of the Rising Sun. It is the first Japanese order, founded in1875, which is serviced to persons with credits to the country. We also cannot omit the presence of paulownia on the Japanese currency – on the coins of 500 yen is it again – the paulownia.

Below: Back of a coin of 500 yen displaying paulownia.


The Order of the Rising Sun with stylized leaf of paulownia. Japanese prime minister’s coat of arm with stylized leaf of paulownia.

An interesting detail of Japanese lifestyle is hanafuda – special playing cards, depicting different plants. At first Hanafuda were used for different complex games, which the noblemen entertained with. Forbidden for the commonalty, the card games, especially gambling went wide in the Japanese people’s life with the opening of Japan to the Western world. Different authors have described these cards and the games played with them have become popular in many countries, including South Korea. Even the cards were called by many different names during different ages and in different countries, there is one thing that remaines unchanged – there is always a picture of paulownia on them. Apropos, it is considered, that even Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) uses them, but this rumor we did not dare to check personally.

Japanese playing cards hanafuda with picture of paulownia on them.”

The custom of planting a tree at the birth of the child was known to have practised in several other cultures as well:

– With the Jewish culture:

“In ancient Israel , a tree was planted when a child was born—a cedar for a boy, a cypress for a girl. As the children grew up, they cared for their own trees” – Tree planting ritual

-Also with ancient Germanic and Mongol cultures:

” … ways of life and death have been associated with particular trees. Tree planting, for example, was considered an investment in life. In Germany, it was customary to plant a tree at a wedding. As each child arrived, an apple tree was planted for every boy and a pear for each girl. The longevity and fruitfulness of the trees were thought to give strength to the marriage and children. Marco Polo said that the Khan had many trees planted because “he who plants a tree will live a long life.” — Cultural aspects of trees: traditions and myths

– And with the Dai culture:
In Dehong of Yunnan, whenever a Dai family gives birth to a new baby, they would plant a lofty fig nearby the village to ask for the sheltering protection of the gods. — Lofty Fig

(In the case of Miao families in China, when a baby is born, the father plants a pine tree or a fir tree, but the wood is not used for dowry purposes but to be made into the funeral coffin. – Miao coffin)

(Images of photos were all from Wikimedia Commons, except the photo of the 500 yen coin which was own work)

Dragon Boat Race Festivals of Japan, their cultural significance and historical connections China

Docked dragon boat during the Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

Docked dragon boat during the Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

The dragon boat race festival, also known as the Duanwu festival, known to be associated with Chinese culture and believed to have originated from China was only officially observed in China from 2008. Before that, it was unofficially celebrated there as it is currently unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of southeast Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia.

In Japan, approximately 260 boat races are being performed throughout Japan under the name of Tarai Matsuri
(basin festival), Minato Matsuri (port festival), Ikada Matsuri (raft festival), Dragon Canoe festival, Peiron Festa, and Tenmasen racing (barge racing). Most of the traditional boat races have been performed in the western areas (including the Hari boat races in Okinawa, Peiron boat races in Nagasaki, and Aioi City)

Nagasaki inherited boat races closely related to the Chinese style, whereas Okinawa still maintains its
own traditional Shintoism in its local style of boat racing. It is said that there are slight differences between the Japanese and Chinese styles. Their legendary roles and functions for conducting the races also seem to be different.


In Japan, Okinawa Prefecture has an ancient tradition of dragonboat races known as hari (ハーリー haarii). In the capital city of Naha, the Naha Hari (那覇ハーリー Naha Haarii) is performed as part of the national observance of Children’s Day, but in Itoman the Itoman Hare (糸満ハーレー Itoman Haaree) is celebrated the same day as the Duwanwu Festival on the Chinese lunar calendar. The city of Tomigusuku also has its own Tomigusuku Hari (豊見城ハーリー), but it is performed in late July  Equivalent and related official festivals include Children’s Day in Japan, Dano in Korea, and Tết Đoan Ngọ in Vietnam.

The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival in Japan

“The origin of boat races in Japan There are many types of traditional boat races in Japan, from
the Tohoku region in the north to the Okinawa islands in the south. It is difficult to specify when these traditional boat races originated, however, what we can observe is that, over the ages, boat racing has been performed for enjoyment and also as a part of traditional Shinto religious rituals.
It seems true that traditional boat racing in Japan was originally influenced by China. Boat racing in Japan took place mainly as a festival for fishermen for the purpose of praying to the gods for a safe voyage and good fishing, whereas boat racing in China was performed on rivers and creeks to pray to their God of Agriculture. Japan is surrounded by the sea and boats played an important role in people’s lives. Boat owners and boat builders
tried boat races to check the performances of their boats and show-off their boat building skills. This is how traditional boat racing developed and continued up until now.

Geographic distribution of traditional boat races 

Traditional boat racing has become more common throughout the world, especially in the South East and East Asia areas, and Japan is no exception. In Japan, more of the traditional boat races have been performed in the western areas, with Hari boat races in Okinawa, Peiron boat races in Nagasaki, and Aioi City holding the more typical style of traditional boat races. There seems to be slight differences in accepting the styles of boat racing from China. Nagasaki inherited boat races closely related to the Chinese style, whereas Okinawa still maintains its own traditional. These days, numerous towns and villages are trying to resurrect traditional boat racing as one of the events of summer festivals for the purpose of revitalizing its people. However, their styles are mostly different from the traditional and old ones. Recent surveys tell us that approximately 260 boat races are being performed throughout Japan under the name of Tarai Matsuri (basin festival), Minato Matsuri (port festival), Ikada Matsuri (raft festival), Dragon Canoe festival, Peiron Festa, and Tenmasen racing (barge racing).

How Hari started in Okinawa 

Dragon boats in Japan date back to around 1390, the oldest date among different accounts, when they were called Hari in Okinawa, the southernmost islands in Japan. The most established
account is that they were brought in from Fukien (Fujian) and Guangdong (Kwangtung), provinces in southeastern China on the East China Sea coast. Later, Hari boat races became a national event of the former Ryukyu (Okinawa) Kingdom and spread over Okinawa Islands as an oceanic god festival for abundant fishing and safety. Hari was originally a fisherman’s festival, but changed a great deal to a local festival after World.

How Peiron started in Japan

Nagasaki Peiron is said to have begun in 1655 when several Chinese ships were unable to leave Nagasaki Harbor due to strong winds and to comfort the oceanic god Peiron boat races were held in the harbor. Following this, Peiron spread gradually to neighboring towns and villages from coast to coast, and they served as a prayer for a good harvest, prosperity in local industries, rain, calm seas, water safety, etc. The Peiron boat is about 14 meters long with 30 paddlers, one drummer, one gongman and one steersman, a total of 33 crewmen on board. Boats race to the drums and gongs for a round-trip of over 1150 meters.
In 1922, Peiron paddlers from a shipbuilding company in Nagasaki came to Ishikawajima-Harima Shipbuilding Company in Aioi City, Hyogo Prefecture, and raced at a company’s athletic gathering. This was the beginning of Aioi Peiron Races and is now held annually as a major tourist attraction.” — The Japan Dragon Boat Association

Get set for boating for Naha and Itoman by Hillel Wright (Japan Times, Apr 21, 2013)

Naha hari boat race

Naha hari boat race

Between May and June are the months in which to visit Okinawa if your aim is to witness the spectacle of fiercely contested races between crews paddling dragon boats or the Ryukyu Islands’ small traditional fishing boats calledsabani.

During Golden Week, from Friday, May 3 to Sunday, May 5, Naha Hari festival will feature dragon-boat races in the city’s Tomari fishing harbor between large haryusen powered by 30 paddlers each.

This year’s festival will be the 39th of the modern era, in which pop concerts, Ryukyu singing and dancing, a youth sumo competition and a fireworks display combine with the intensely competitive races to create a truly carnival atmosphere enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

From morning to evening during the three-day event, crews representing schools, companies, civic organizations and military units compete using the three traditional Naha dragon boats. Symbolically representing the three ancient towns that make up modern Naha, these dragon-prowed vessels with trailing tails are Naha’s dark-green-painted boat, the yellow one of Kume and the black beast of Tomari.

Although dragon-boat racing can be traced back 2,500 years in China — to around the time of the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece — local legend has it that the fearsome-looking craft first appeared on Okinawa about 600 years ago.

In 1393, Wan-ōso (aka O Oso), the lord of Tomigusuku Castle and nephew of the King of Nanzan — the southernmost of the three kingdoms on Okinawa Island at the time — was a student at the Imperial University in Nanking, China. Having become enamored of the dragon-boat races he saw there during his stay, he is said to have had one built upon his return home to use on the Manko River.

Soon afterward, impressed locals began building similar boats, and when Wan-ōso became King of Nanzan in 1403, he launched the Hari dragon-boat races to impress the gods and ensure good fishing, a bountiful harvest and peace in the kingdom.

Today’s trio of Naha dragon boats are each 15.25 meters long with two rows of 15 seats for the 30 paddlers who sit side by side. Crews also include a drummer (or caller), who sits in the bow, a steersman (or sweep) in the stern, and a flag-puller, who positions himself near the bow to grab the all-important pennant attached to a float and so signal that his boat has finished the race.

In Chinese tradition, the dragon’s eye is painted red prior to a race to bring the creature to life. So if a dragon boat is alive and the paddlers are its wings, the drummer is the dragon’s heart. Like the cox in Western rowing races, he directs the pace, frequency and rhythm of the paddlers’ strokes. Additionally, the steersman controls the course of the boat with a large “sweep oar” on one side of the stern — though Naha dragon boats often use two steersmen.

As for the crews, synchronizing their paddle strokes in time with the drummer’s “heartbeat” is just as important as the speed and power of their strokes.

Last year’s Naha Hari took place under mostly sunny skies and, as it’s held at the city’s fishing port, there was no shortage of food booths in front of the municipal fish market as well as inside the market itself. Typically, those attending can escape from the usual matsuri (festival) fare of yakisoba (fried noodles), corn dogs and okonomiyaki pancakes and indulge instead in island specialties such as maguro kama (grilled tuna “shoulder”), gurukun(bananafish), tempura bento (box lunches) and grilled tuna steaks or whole scallops.

As well, for those looking for a fishy treat to take home, some booths also sell fresh local seafood, including kihada maguro (yellowfin tuna), kajiki (marlin),mekajiki (swordfish), mambo (moonfish), mibai (Okinawan grouper),irabucha (parrotfish) and umi budoh (sea grapes).

Meanwhile, just as the Naha Hari festival happens during Golden Week in early May on the Western calendar, the Itoman Hare sea festival, focused on fishermen’s sabani races, is a one-day event held on the fourth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar — on June 12 this year.

The Hare is Itoman’s sole sea festival, and given that the city is famous throughout the western Pacific Ocean region for its tough and innovative fishermen, this is a major date that normally attracts around 30,000 revelers and spectators from far and wide.

Between races, young esa dancers entertain 30,000 hare viewers

Between races, young esa dancers entertain 30,000 hare spectators

Like the Naha Hari, the Itoman Hare is held at the local fishing harbor to seek the gods’ favor for safe voyages and good catches. But unlike Naha Hari’s dragon-boat races, Itoman Hare’s are between sabani fishing canoes developed by Itoman fishermen more than 500 years ago.

In the 19th century, those fishermen — wearing then newfangled goggles — would dive down from these boats to drive schools of fish into nets set ahead of them. Then, at the end of the 20th century they started using so-called fish-aggregating devices, which are basically lengths of rope or old fishing gear left dangling from flagged and anchored buoys. In the natural way of things, this detritus soon becomes host to mussels, barnacles, seaweeds and the like, which attract small fish to feed on them. Then larger fish such as tuna, marlin and mahi mahi (dolphinfish) soon turn up to feed on them — and it’s these the fisherman hunt using nets or hooks and lines.

Sabani boats evolved from dugout canoes, to the sides of which strakes (flat boards) were added to raise the freeboard and prevent waves swamping them. Then, over time, the vessels evolved into the sabani’s now distinctive and streamlined fish-form shape. No iron or steel nails are used in building them, as their fastenings are wooden dovetail keys secured with bamboo nails.

In earlier times, sabani were sailed as well as paddled, and though their narrowness and shallow draft made them fast, they were prone to capsizing. Being buoyant, though, they were easy to right and then bail out. This has given rise to one of the Hare’s most popular events, its kunnukase (capsize) race, in which the three boats must be tipped over mid-race so their crews have to right them, bail them out and get back aboard to resume paddling. This is to demonstrate the courage and seamanship of Itoman’s fishermen, as well as their strength and power as paddlers.

At 6.8 meters long, the sabani are smaller than Naha’s dragon boats. They carry 10 paddlers, a drummer, a steersman and in some races a flag-bearer who stands amidship and chants and waves pennants to help synchronize the crew’s strokes.

Around 9 a.m. on the day of Itoman Hare, the Hare bell is rung to symbolically announce the end of the annual rainy season. Then the Nanzan and Itomannoro (priestesses) perform a ceremony and the races begin. The opening event, the Ugwan Bare, is over an 850-meter course, as are most of the other races between schools, organizations and companies. But then, at the climax of the competition, comes the 2,160-meter Agai Subu contested between fishermen from Nishimura, Nakamura and Mijima — the three ancient villages comprising today’s city of Itoman.

After the Agai Subu all the sabani crews go to the Nundunchu (House of the Itoman Noro) to sing the Hare song and receive awamori (Okinawan sake) from the priestess.

Finally, after the festival ends, local legend has it that the souls of those who have died at sea have a race called the Guso Bare. Consequently, whether hungover or not, the day after the Hare no one goes fishing to avoid contact with the ghost paddlers. After that, it’s back to work out on the turbulent ocean until the following year’s festival draws excited crowds to Itoman’s shores again.

Wikipedia on the historical origins of the “Dragon Boat”:

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists, and anthropologists to have originated in southern central China more than 2500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of the Chang Jiang (now called the Yangtze) during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia).[1] Dragon boat racing has been practiced continuously since this period as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations and for the traditional veneration of the Chinese dragon water deity. The celebration was an important part of the ancient Chinese agricultural society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing was historically situated in the Chinese subcontinent’s southern-central “rice bowl”; where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats.

Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese zodiac, only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical animals, yet all twelve of the zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. Dragons were traditionally believed to be the rulers of water on earth: rivers, lakes, and seas; they also were thought to dominate the waters of the heavens: clouds, mists, and rains. There are earth dragons, mountain dragons, and sky or celestial dragons (Tian Long) in Chinese tradition. Mythical dragons and serpents are also found widely in many cultures around the world.

Tang dynasty painting of a dragon boat race attributed to Li Zhaodao

Some Western scholars have speculated that sacrifices through drowning may have been involved in the earliest boat racing rituals, although this remains unconfirmed.[2] The origin of this speculation seems to have originated with Carl Whiting Bishop (1881-1942), an early East Asia scholar who was active with the Smithsonian.[3] He theorized that the festival came from a similar cultural purpose as an Egyptian practice as described by the ancient historian Plutarch, although without citing evidence: “The ritual appears to be [a rite] of rainmaking in connection with agriculture, and it is pretty certainly of pre-Chinese origin. Not improbably it once centered on a human sacrifice by drowning.”

Based on this theory, some of these accounts have suggested speculatively that perhaps during ancient times, violent clashes between the crews of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo poles. This unsubstantiated idea claims that paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water would receive no assistance from the onlookers as their fate would be considered the will of the dragon deity. In this highly speculative scenario, boaters who drowned would have been thought to have been sacrificed. That Qu Yuan sacrificed himself in protest through drowning, in this line of thought, may speak to this early notion. However, this theory of human sacrifice is in direct contradiction of most accounts of the origin of the races, which hold that the dragon boat festival began as a way to rescue Qu Yuan. The traditional food zongzi is often thrown into the water, originating from the idea of keeping fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body.[8] Modern academics continue to attempt to confirm the origin of the race, which is somewhat still open to speculation.[9]

Traditional dragon boat racing, in China, coincides with the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to June on the modern Gregorian Calendar). The Summer Solstice occurs around 21 June and is the reason why Chinese refer to their festival as “Duan Wu” or “Duen Ng”. Both the sun and the dragon are considered to be male. (The moon and the mythical phoenix are considered to be female.) The sun and the dragon are at their most potent during this time of the year, so cause for observing this through ritual celebrations such as dragon boat racing. It is also the time of farming year when rice seedlings must be transplanted in their paddy fields, for wet rice cultivation to take place. Wu or Ng refers to the sun at its highest position in the sky during the day, the meridian of ‘high noon’. Duan or Duen refers to upright or directly overhead. So Duan Wu is an ancient reference to the maximum position of the sun in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year or summer solstice.

This hot season is also associated with pestilence and disease, so is considered as a period of evil due to the high summer temperatures which can lead to rot and putrification in primitive societies lacking modern refrigeration and sanitation facilities. One custom involves cutting shapes of the five poisonous or venomous animals out of red paper, so as to ward off these evils. The paper snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards and toads – those that supposedly lured “evil spirits” – where sometimes placed in the mouths of the carved wooden dragons.

Venerating the dragon deity was meant to avert misfortune and calamity and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and thus for the prosperity of an agrarian way of life. Celestial dragons were the controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds and the clouds. The Emperor was “The Dragon” or the “Son of Heaven”, and Chinese people refer to themselves as “dragons” because of its spirit of strength and vitality. Unlike the dragons in European mythology which are considered to be evil and demonic, Asian dragons are regarded as wholesome and beneficent, and thus worthy of veneration, not slaying. But if rainfall is insufficient drought and famine can result. Dragon veneration in China seems to be associated with annually ensuring life giving water and bountiful rice harvests in south central China.

Another ritual called Awakening of the Dragon involves a Daoist priest dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber and re-energising its spirit or qi (pronounced: chee). In modern dragon boat festivals a VIP can be invited to step forward to dot the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint made of the blood of a chicken in order to reanimate the creature’s bold spirit for hearty racing.

* Worcester, George. The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River, 1971.
See also Duanwu Festival:

Some modern researchers suggest that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed on a pre-existing holiday tradition. The promotion of these stories over the earlier lore of the holiday seems to have been encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence at a time when other belief systems were seen as gaining influence in China.

The deaths (and lives) of both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu were recorded in Sima Qian‘s Shiji, completed 187 and 393 years after the events, respectively. While Sima Qian gave high praise to both characters, there is no evidence showing any link between the historic account of these characters in Shiji and the popularity of the festival in their names.

Many traditional rituals of the Duanwu Festival emphasize the avoidance of disease(see Horses, Dragons, Disease in Nara Japan by Michael Como, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34/2: 393–415). The desire to prevent health hazards associated with the mid-summer months may have been the primary original motive behind the holiday.

Another theory, advanced by Wen Yiduo, is that the Duanwu Festival had its origins in dragon worship. Support is drawn from two key traditions of the festival: the tradition of zongzi, or throwing food into the river, and dragon boat racing. The food may have originally represented an offering to the dragon king, while dragon boat racing naturally reflects reverence of the dragon and the active yang energy associated with it. This combines with the tradition of visiting friends and family on boats.

Another suggestion is that the festival celebrates a widespread feature of east Asian agrarian societies: the harvest of winter wheat. Offerings were regularly made to deities and spirits at such times: in the ancient Yue, dragon kings; in the ancient Chu, Qu Yuan; in the ancient Wu, Wu Zixu (as a river god); in ancient Korea, mountain gods (see Dano (Korean festival)). As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.

Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

The festival was long marked as a festival culturally in China and is a public holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. However, the People’s Republic of China government, established in 1949, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005, the government began to plan for the re-recognition of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. Since 2008, Duanwu has been celebrated not only as a festival but also a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China

Dragon boat races are often given significance due to the patronage by royalty of such events, and the repeated performance of religious rites associated with the boat race festivals, and the body of myths surrounding the dragon perpetuated by the festivals:
The Dragon Boat Race, although centered in southern China, is found over a wide area of East Asia and Mainland Southeast Asia. Zhuang points out that the Dragon Boat Race’s ritual functions include praying for rain or good harvests, for the cure of sickness, and for protection from disaster and from the curses of those who have drowned. The ritual displays great variety, however, because of its close links with local folk worldviews and religious
The content of the Dragon Boat Race ritual is quite complex. Researchers have investigated the ritual’s meaning, function, and organization, its relation to production and political power, the legends of its origin and related folk beliefs, and the symbolism of the dragon and the dragon’s multiform powers. Confining ourselves to Mainland China, we can say that the “classic” Dragon Boat Race is held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the old calendar, and is linked to the legend of the poet Qu Yuan of the Warring States period. The race introduced in this video is of the type connected with this legend. The ritual practices and various religious customs in the documentary show the general procedures of the Dragon Boat Race.
We are, for instance, introduced to a family rite related to the growth of small children, to a local sanctuary called Taishanfu and to the deities venerated there, to the rites dedicated to the dragon head at the boat’s prow, to the priests and their ritual roles, to the Dragon Boat Race itself as it is performed by the villagers, to the throwing of rice dumplings into the river to commemorate Qu Yuan, and finally to the parade of the gods of the local sanctuary
through the settlement. In view of the long gap in our knowledge of the detailed circumstances of the race’s ritual practice on the mainland, every single piece of information recorded in this visual ethnography is of great importance.
Here, however, we must return to a very fundamental problem. The Dragon Boat Race as described above is not only a religious ritual; it also serves a variety of other functions. In Thailand, Myammar, and Laos, for example, it is typically a rite of the royalty with direct links to the king’s authority, while in Okinawa it displays clear connections with the folk worldview and local ritual organization despite cultural influences from China. In mainland
China peoples like the Miao or Bai — minorities strongly influenced by the Han — possess the Dragon Boat Race. Source: The Dragon Boat Festival, review of a video production
Yang Ssu-chJang has written up rather convincing reasons based on the folk-function of dragon boat race and dragon paper boat rites in ancient times similar to the Japanese harae rites as rites for dispelling evil and their association with the 5th month of Duanwu:

“It seems to me that the end and aim of the boat race is ‘to send away the mark’ but it is not clear why this ceremony is so called;. As the ceremony itself indicates, it is a ceremony to send away evils. . In some other districts it is also said that the boat race is held to expel evils. For example, in Yao-chow ( 岳 州 ),Hunan, the people believe so. (Cf. Fan Chih-ming 范致明,Yao-yang Feng-fu-chi 岳陽風 土 IE ,P. 23; Ku-chin I-shih 古文逸史 edition.) The dragon boat is generally considered as a thing to send away evils. In Yao-chow also the houses in which, somebody is sick make a sacrifice on a water side, prepare food and wine for the boatmen and make a straw boat to float on the river (ibid). In Heng-shan ( 衡 山 〉,Hunan, on the dragon boat festival the Taoist priests and sorcerers make a dragon boat of paper, which is carried on a wooden frame by two men; on the frame are hung a drum and a gong; the men sing and beat them from door to door along the street. This is said to arrest the plague. (Cf. Hunan Ko-hsien Feng-su Tiao-ch’a Pi-chi 湖南各縣風俗調査筆記 ,by Tseng Chi-wu 曾繼搭,1931,p. 136.) In Yu-hsien (攸 縣 ) on the same day a wooden dragon boat about five feet long is made, on whし」 are standing some paper figures with oars in their hand, and are carried through the streets (ibid. p. 126). In Ch’ang-sha ( 县 沙 )at any time when one is ill a boat is made according to the advice of the sorcerer (ibid. p. 120), Even the Mu-lao Miao ( 棘猪留 ) of Kueichow during some festivals construct dragon boats of straw on which are flown flags of five colours. They dance and sing around them and make sacrifice to ghosts. (Li Tsung-fang 李宗昉,Chien Chi 龄言巳,chiian 3,p. 4,in Wen-, ying-lou Ts’ung-shu 問影樓叢書 .}

What evils are sent away or expelled? Some points of the present article suggest the answer that it is the deceased souls.
(a) According to the legend on page 11 quoted from the Hsii Ch’i-hsieh-chi a five-coloured thread is tied up on the bamboo tube or the tsung-tzu that is thrown into the water on the 5th day of the 5th month. This kind of thread is closely connected with the soul of the dead,probably a symbol of it. To illustrate this point we had better take some evidences from the Miao tribe, who formerly lived in South Hunan. When a Hei-miao (黑 菌 )has died, a coloured thread is tied up on the top of a bamboo stick which is erected in front of the tombf^men. and women made offerings to it (Li Tsung-fang-, Ch’ien Chi, chiian 3, p. 2). When a “Kuo-ch’uan Ch’i-lao ( 飼圈狡狡猪 )is sick, a five-coloured thread is bound up on a tig e i’,s bone, which is put in a winnowing fan, and a sorcerer is invited to pray for him (ibid. chiian 3,p. 3). In Sung Yu’s Calling Back the Soul (cf. note 33) it is also said that a bamboo basket and a thread was used to call back the soul. According to Kiang C hi,s (蔣騎 > commentary on the Ch,u Tz,u,the thread is in five colours. (Shan-tai-ko Chu Ch’u Tz,uchiian 6, p. 5). — THE DRAGON BOAT RACE IN WU-LING, HUNAN

Ancient rivers and boat expulsion practices:

Excerpted from “Rivers of death in Japanese myth and folklore and in other parts of the world

The Nagatoro Funadama Festival held annually on the Arakawa River in the Chichibu area of Japan in Saitama prefecture is but one example among many, of ancient river or water expulsion practices still practised today in Japan. The Nagatoro Fireworks festival is held right beside the river, preceded by sending off a boat lit up with lights. The festival takes place during the Bon period, to honor the spirits of the dead that visit the realm of the living during this period. After dark, boats decorated with paper lanterns and about 1,000 individual lanterns are floated on the waters of the Arakawa River to pray for the repose of drowned persons, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Click here to watch a video clip of the event or read more about the Festival for the Dead here. …

Origin of river rituals:

River rituals involving human sacrifices to river deities were prevalent on the Chinese continent in the Shang, Zhou and Warring States eras and are believed to have been imported by Chinese immigrants into Japan over the long periods of time. The Korean kingdoms too had numerous river and water deities to whom the people tried to appease through their offerings.
In a case study on the Taiwanese 18 deities’ Royal Lords temple cult, the rite of floating and burning boats was noted to be a custom prevalent among southern Chinese and Siberian Khanty peoples. That the imagery of a River of Plague or Disease may have been widely known to Central Asia in ancient times, is suggested by the research paper:
“The Royal Lords cult involves the performance of plague expulsion festivals, which include sending off a “plague boat”—small wooden boat—which represents the community’s accumulated afflictions. I saw exactly such kind of wooden boat in the underground chamber of the Temple of 18 Deities during my fieldwork.  According to Katz (2003: 158), worshipers in southern China and Taiwan have used the title “Royal Lord(s)” to refer to a wide range of spirits, including plague-spreading deities. Such cults developed in south China in the 10th century. Most popular deity among them is Marshal Wen (Wen Yuanshuai), who is worshiped in southern Fujian and Taiwan as Lord Chi (Chi Wangye). Marshal Wen originally was a snake-demon who spread diseases by spitting out poisonous vapours. The connected Chinese images of plague-spreading deities and a boat remind to the plot of a Khanty (Siberian) myth “Holy Legend about the Desirable Knight—Merchant of the Low World, Merchant of the Upper World” (1990 no. 30: 105–125), which describes a floating caravan of boats on the Ob river with diseases-spreading deities on them. The caravan brought epidemic diseases and mass deaths to many cities on the Ob banks and belonged to the underworld, which was believed to be situated on the North Lower Ob and was a kingdom of the Lord of Diseases and Death.
In Japan, offerings of pottery at river sites had also been made since prehistoric or proto-historic times by local communities, excavated finds by archaeologists indicate the purification ritual practice began at least as early as the Kofun era (large quantities of miniature earthern pots were found from the river area of the Mizokui site, Ibaraki city, Osaka; one of them with a face etched onto the pottery).
Some scholars believe that the use of effigies in Nara period river rituals in particular is associated with ancient Chinese witchcraft techniques may go back to the Han dynasty or even earlier as outlined in Chi Songzi zhangli (赤松子章曆 an important Taoist text and ritual compilation) were later introduced into Japan.
Shinto practitioners and experts in Japan today trace the various rites which go by the name of harae (or o-harae) to the Kojiki myth of  the act of  washing in the sea which Izanagi-no-kami performed after his return from Yomi, the land of the dead (to which he had followed his wife Izanami) in order to purify himself from the uncleanness and polluting elements he had come into contact with there.
In its earliest form of the custom, the ritual offerings made were a fine or penalty imposed upon those who had committed offences or in contracted pollution, under which term all crimes and sins were at first included. The ritual offerings sometimes took the form of human, animal or other food sacrifices, as well as other items of value. In the Nara period the practice was declared to be barbaric, so substitutive pottery, human or animal effigies, and coin offerings became the norm.
Until the Nara period, o-harae ablution events were performed at various irregular times and as the need arose, but from the Nara period onwards, o-harae became regular bi-annual court and shrine events as carried over till today.  The “Great Purification” came to be held regularly on the 30th June and 31st December. This was because the mid-ninth century, the Nara court in adopting Chinese Tang dynasty style of court etiquette and government, had established an official bureau of yin-yang geomancy masters who went to work institutionalizing and regulating the expulsion rituals and the management of pollution taboos.

Excavated from the Kannonji site, which were once old riverbeds of a branch of the Yoshino River during the Nara period, were  large numbers of artifacts, including pottery and wooden boat effigies and other implements.  Also among the artifacts are thin boards shaped into a human outline, and faces drawn in ink. One board is split down the center, broken into upper and lower halves has realistically painted thick eyebrows, and the beard and moustache.  Together with the boat effigies made of wood, they are thought to have been used in a harae rite.”
Further readings:

Three versions of the legend of the Silkworm-Golden Princess from India

The Golden Princess from India

The tale of Golden Princess from India rescued by a lion, depicted on a carving on the side of the Kokegesan Shrine in Kawasaki city, Kanagawa

The first version of the legend of the silkworm princess comes from Sanrei-jinja or Sanrei Shrine in Kamisu city,  Ibaragi prefecture.

Sanrei-jinja shrine, Kamisu city, Ibaragi prefecture

Sanrei-jinja shrine, Kamisu city, Ibaragi prefecture

Version 1

As Sanrei Shrine 蚕霊神社(さんれい じんじゃ)’s tradition goes, in the month of March 286 BC, a fisherman by the name of Gondayu found a small timbered boat drifting on to shore and he dragged it up the sands of the Toyoura Beach (豊浦浜 currently known as Nikkawa Beach which is about 2 km from the Sanrei Shrine).  When he had had a chance to examine the boat, he discovered inside it was a beautiful girl, who turned out to be a princess from India.

The princess had a tragic tale to tell – when her mother passed on, her father remarried. But like most classic evil-stepmother-fairytales, the princess’ new stepmother hated the princess because she was very beautiful and devised a plot to have her taken out to a remote island and abandoned on a mountain where wild lions were known to roam,  and where fierce hawks nested.

But as fate intervened, the princess was rescued by lions, hawks, and fishermen who returned her to the palace. Then the wicked stepmother in exasperation, had the princess buried her underground. But once again, the stepmother’s plan was foiled, as the princess was delivered by some supernatural presence and dazzling light that shone out of the ground and once again, the princess returned home.

Finally, the step mother confined the princess she hated with a passion in a timber boat made of wood from the mulberry tree and set it adrift on the ocean. The boat eventually drifted to Toyoura Beach and was taken up onto shore by the good fisherman, Gondayu.

Gondayu tried to nurse the princess back to health but she died anyway due to exposure and disease and was transformed into small insect. Gondayu believed that the insect was the princess reborn and incarnated as an insect and he fed it leaves from the mulberry tree. Then the insect began to spit out beautiful thread, and making a cocoon, confined itself in it. Gondayu then used the thread of the cocoon to weave fabric. That is how the sericulture in the area began and eventually the sericulture industry made the village prosperous.

A shrine was built by the locals to show gratitude and respect towards the originators and creators of sericulture….


Version 2

Kokegesan-jinja, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa

Kokegesan-jinja, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa

This second version of  the Golden Princess tale comes from the Kokegesan shrine formerly on the precincts of the Tokoin Temple, in Asao ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa,  now relocated to the Japan Open Air Folkhouse Museum in Kawasaki city.

As this version goes, the Golden Princess was born in northern India, and after overcoming four hardships, she arrived in Japan, as an incarnation of the Boddhisatva Memyō Bosatsu, introducing to local people the new technology of sericulture. It is said that the four hardships symbolize the four dormant stages in the life of a silk worm before it pupates.

Gondayu rescues the Golden Princess

Gondayu goes out in a boat and rescues the Golden Princess

The small but elegant shrine is dedicated to the patron deity of sericulture, Kokegesan Daigongen. Originally located in Okagami (In the precincts of Tōkōin-Temple), Asao Ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa prefecture. But as the silk industry declined, it became difficult for the village people to afford the cost of maintenance, so the building was moved to Nihon Minkaen open air folkhouse museum.


The shrine is decorated with relief carvings (see above and shown redrawn and enlarged below) depicting the story of the Golden Princess, although they are not fully open to the view of visitors.

FullSizeRender (7)FullSizeRender (11)FullSizeRender (5)(For no. 1 see the top of page)

This is a small shrine (kūden) is contained within a covered thatched building to protect it from wind and rain. It used to be located in the precincts of Tōkōin, a local Buddhist temple, and was an object of veneration for years. This folktale account is obviously a later version that has undergone syncretism incorporating a Buddhist deity Boddhisatva Memyō Bosatsu.

With a half hipped roof at the front and a hipped roof at the rear, the covering building is a cusped gable entry structure a cusped gable (Ikkensha, Kasugazukuri, mukai-karahafu, kokera buki) designed to be as impressive as possible when viewed from the front. Although relatively small, its roof makes it look magnificent, with deep eaves supported by long jettied members on all four sides (Segai Zukuri). The grass ridge (shibamune) of the thatched roof has irises planted in it, which look beautiful when they bloom in the spring. The space at the front of the building is an open earth-floored area, conceived as a kōhai(the porch area provided for the use of worshippers at the front of a temple building). The shrine (kūden) is set in the innermost recesses of the floored part of the covering building, surrounded by sliding panels and walls. The inner part of wooden floor, where the kūdenstands, is elevated, emphasising the respect in which the shrine is held.

The shrine is of the Kasuga Style type (i.e. it is modeled on the gable-entry shrine buildings of Kasuga Taisha in Nara) with a karahafu (cusped) gable at the front. It is known from the munafuda nailed to the rear wall of the building that the shrine was built in 1863.

Sources: My visit to Nihon Minkaen, own photos; Kokegesan Shrine – An Important Cultural Property of Kawasaki City

Version 3

The next version of the tale is recounted in TsukuBlog’s article “Ancient ritual for silkworms at Kokage-san jinja” in which the existence of another Kokai-jinja in Hitachi (Ibaraki prefecture) is mentioned, and detailed descriptions are also given of another Silkworm-deity dedicated Kokage-jinja in Tsukuba, also in Ibaraki (excerpted below), which according to the article, is supposed to be the oldest shrine in Japan dedicated to the Kokage-San Silkworm deity, although as I posted above, the shrine tradition of the Kamisu shrine, if accurate, makes that one the oldest.

Kokage-San Shrine is yet another Tsukuba superlative. It is the oldest shrine in Japan dedicated exclusively to sericulture and once attracted thousands of worshipers, many from the textile towns of Nagano, Gunma and Yamanashi.  Located in the beautifully rustic Kangori (神郡) district of Tsukuba, the shrine is reached by ascending ancient and uneven stone steps through an even more ancient sacred grove.

view of the proceedings as offerings of sacred sake (O-Miki) and sakaki branches are mad

view of the proceedings as offerings of sacred sake (O-Miki) and sakaki branches are mad

The Legend of the Konjiki Princess

The sea used to actually reach not very far from this site, and according to local legend (there are several versions!), in  6th century India there a princess who was constantly being abused by her step-mother. The situation got worse and worse and finally, the king decided that it would be best for his daughter to make her way to another land for a new start. He had her put in a boat made of mulberry wood and had her cast off. She made landfall near Mt Tsukuba. A local man called KONDAYU and his wife tried to help the princess- but to no avail. Starved and exhausted, she shrivelled up into a little worm, The couple put it in a big box and fed it mulberry leaves. It grew bigger and stronger. It made a coccoon. The deity of Mt.Tsukuba, in the form of a hermit named EIDO SENNIN (影道仙人), taught the local people how to extract silk thread from the cocoon.

This was the beginning of what would become the thriving sericulture of this area.

The name KOKAGE-SAN JINJA was created by taking the character from the word KAIKO - 蚕 – silkworm and adding the character 影 taken from the name of the hermit EIDO SENNIN- to create : KOKAGE JINJA (蚕影神社) also called KOKAGE-SAN JINJA (蚕影山神社)

To the right of the shrines main hall, under an enclosure I found an undated E-ma painting, donated by someone from Nagano Prefecture, depicting this scene.

I had a chance to chat with the Kanshushis (Shinto priests) as they were setting up the offerings on the altar. They were actually sent by The Tsukuba-San Shrine, as the Kokage Shrine has nearly been forgotten with the peicipitous decline in sericulture in Japan over the past few decades. Now there are priests at the shrine only twice a year, March 28th for the spring offerings, and then November 23rd for the shrine’s festival.

They explained to me how special the silkworms (kaiko) were to the Japanese, as they were the only domestic animal actually raised in people’s homes. They are also the only animals which normally are referred to using an honorific  – O Kaiko-Sama, though the local people usual shorten this to O Ko-Sama. As the time came to commence the ceremony only three old men had battled the stairs and settled inside the shrine for the ceremony. This being a mere shadow of the crowds which would have been there in former days. First, a purification rite was carried out, and then offerings of cocoons, fruit, and sacred sakaki leaves were made. O-miki (sake) was then drunk, and commemorative towels given to the few of us present.

After the ceremony, we clambered down the steps as the local men reminisced about the shrines glory days. Now the wooden buildings which would have been used by numerous vendors on this day were virtually falling apart ( one has actually collapsed!). One man mentioned that a movie had been shot on this staircase, though he could not recall the title ( it was the unwatchable first directorial effort by actor Yakusho Koji- Gama no Abura). Another man mentioned how just the other day the Emperor and Emperess performed a similar ritual for silkworms, which he had seen broadcast on TV (the Imperial Couple raises rice and silkworms for ritual purposes). 

We reached the bottom of the stairway huffing and puffing. We then entered the dilapidated old shop which once served the throngs of pilgrims who would flock here. They still sold a special souvenir — Kokage Yo-kan (beanpaste). As a breeze entered the shop it gently lifted the paper displaying the price of the yokan. I noticed that for that day they had raised the price by 100 yen, taking advantage of the ceremony. Unfortunately, only 3 locals and I had shown up. Times change, things change, and this ancient rite is certainly hanging on by a VERY thin thread.”

Some observations:

  • the folktale versions of the Golden Princess, dates and the names of the Kokage-san/Kokegesan deity vary slightly as you might expect, but we also find from examining these accounts:
  • the account of the Silkworm princess is found spanning the areas from Kanagawa prefecture to Ibaragi prefecture in southern to eastern Kanto Island;
  • the account of silkworm technology as originating from India is consistent (prior to Hata and others’ migration to the Japanese archipelago);
  • these accounts are completely different from the continental Hata clan and other Chinese or Korean-provenanced myths, the details of the different myths can reveal the specific connections with migrant populations from outside of Japan.

For further reading on this subject, see Weaving goddesses of Japan and elsewhere in the world; A loom with a view. Michael Como’s “Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient  Japan” and Akima Toshio’s “The Myth of the Goddess of the Undersea World and the Tale of Empress Jingu’s Subjugation of Silla” (Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1993 20/2-3) both works mention the important connection between the divine descent and weaving maidens such as Amaterasu’s younger sister and sacred weaving maiden Wakaru-hime who fell on her loom and died;  Himegoso‘s vengeful Akaruhime ; Natsuhata-hime and Kamuhata-hime, and the miniature loom/shuttle offerings that were made in prehistoric times to the Munakata goddesses on Okinoshima.

Further readings:

Oshirasama and Sacrifices of Silk

Silkworms and Consorts in Nara Japan, Asian Folklore Journal Issue no. 64, Jan,  by Michael Como

Abstract: This article examines the role of the Chinese ritual calendar and continental technologies in the formation of early literary and ritual tropes of the Japanese islands. Special attention is given to a small cluster of legends involving imperial emissaries that are sent to call out women with whom rulers have become enamored. The text argues that these legends illustrate the influence of continental rites and legends related to weaving and sericulture on the formation of early tropes of kingship and courtly romance. Because these legends appear to have been rooted in Chinese rites in which silkworm goddesses were “called out” using imagery based upon the silkworm’s ability to “die” and be reborn, the text further argues that these legends may have been related to the development of purportedly “native” funerary practices during the period

Kirin – The Japanese Unicorn

One-horned unicorn-lion of Yasaka Jinja shrine

One-horned unicorn kirin (sin-you) of Yasaka Jinja shrine

The Kirin in Japanese, qilin (in Chinese: 麒麟; pinyin: qílín) is a mythical hooved chimerical creature known in Chinese and other East Asian cultures, said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. It is a good omen thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. It is sometimes called the “Chinese unicorn” when compared with the Western unicorn. The Japanese kirin looked more like the Sin-you lion-like beast. Some later Japanese netsuke portray a Kirin that has wings that look like the Central Asian winged horse with horns or the Sphinx. Or they become increasingly dragon-like like Chinese Qilins.

Netsuke with wings, looking more like Central Asian mythical winged horses or sphinx-like beasts (photo: Tide Mammoth)

Netsuke with wings, looking more like Central Asian mythical winged horses or sphinx-like beasts (photo: Tide Mammoth)

An ivory netsuke of a kirin by Yoshimasa, Kyoto, early 19th c. (Photo: Bonhams)

An ivory netsuke of a kirin by Yoshimasa, Kyoto, early 19th c. (Photo: Bonhams)

The Kirin / Qilin  can sometimes be depicted as having a single horn as in the Western tradition, or as having two horns. In modern Chinese the word for “unicorn” is 独角兽(Traditional 獨角獸) “du jiao shou”, and a Qilin that is depicted as a unicorn, or 1-horned, is called “Du jiao Qilin” 独角麒麟 (Traditional Chinese: 獨角麒麟) meaning “1-horned Qilin” or “Unicorn Qilin”. However, there are several kinds of Chinese mythical creatures which also are unicorns, not just Qilin. Qilin generally have Chinese dragon-like features.

Most notably their heads, eyes with thick eyelashes, manes that always flow upward and beards. The bodies are fully or partially scaled, though often shaped like an ox, deer or horse’s, and always with cloven hooves. In modern times, the depictions of Qilin have often fused with the Western concept of unicorns.

Qing dynasty Chinese Qilin

Qing dynasty Chinese Qilin

The earliest references to the qilin are in the 5th century BC Zuo Zhuan. The qilin made appearances in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction, such as Feng Shen Bang. Emperor Wu of Han was said to have captured a live qilin in 122 BC.

According to ancient Taoist time period lore, although they can look fearsome, Qilin only punish the wicked, thus there are several variations of court trials and judgements based on Qilin divinely knowing whether a defendant was good or evil, and guilty or innocent, in ancient lore and stories. The Eastern unicorn was depicted as a solitary animal, believed to have sprung from the center of the earth, the first and most perfect of the 360 land creatures. The Eastern unicorn always reached its destination, never falling into pits or traps, so it was honored as a great spiritual guide through life.

In Buddhist influenced depictions, they will refuse to walk upon grass for fear of harming a single blade, and thus are often depicted walking upon the clouds or the water. As they are divine and peaceful creature, their diets do not include flesh.

In legend, the Qilin became dragon-like and then tiger-like after their disappearance in East Asia and finally a stylized representation of the giraffe in Ming Dynasty. The identification of the Qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He‘s voyage to East Africa according to recent scholarship. The modern Japanese word for giraffe is also kirin, which bears the same derived ideas.


The unicorn beast in Japan

“The Japanese unicorn, is an important part of oriental culture. Here the unicorn plays different roles and could appear as the gentle kirin, as the k’i – lin, or the sin – you.

The kirin and the k’i – lin, normally shy creatures, taking large detours to avoid confrontation, have a similar gazelle-like appearance and are solitary animals who walk with measured tread, though some say the k’i-lin skips. The male is called the k’i, while the female is the lin. Although it had different forms. its eyes were always intent and piercing.

In contrast the sin – you looks like a lion, being thick-maned, tawny, and fierce, with a single horn. The Sin-you unicorn was not as timid as its brothers and known for its ability to know right from wrong was often called upon to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals. If an individual was determined to be guilty, the Sin-you would fix its eyes upon him and pierce the guilty person with its horn.

In Taoism and other mystical Eastern cultures, there arose a variety of teachings in art and dance to honor all of nature, including the unicorn and other sacred beasts.” — Japanese unicorns

The Japanese Sin-you unicorn was especially associated with the idea of guilt and justice (see Japanese Unicorns ). It was typically depicted as a sinewy animal that looked much like the lion (as in the photo above).

On the later “Kirin” type of unicorn, Onmark Productions’ Shijin article has this to say:

The Kirin, which often appears tiger-like in artwork (see photos below), is a different creature entirely from the White Tiger. The Kirin is said to have the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse, a body covered with the scales of a fish, and a single horn. The Kirin appears only before the birth or death of a great and wise person. Said to live in paradise, the Kirin personifies all that is good, pure, and peaceful; can live to be 1,000 years old.

Below text courtesy of
Kirin - Icon found on popular Japanese beer called KirinspacerA mythical horned Chinese deer-like creature said to appear only when a sage has appeared. It is a good omen associated with serenity and prosperity. Often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. In most drawings, its head looks like that of a Chinese dragon (see dragon above). Japanese art typically depicts the Kirin as more deer-like than its Chinese counterpart. Kirin is sometimes translated in English as “unicorn,” because it looks similar to the unicorn — the later a hoofed mythological horse-like beast with a single horn on its head. Some accounts describe it as having the body of a deer and the head of a lion. <end quote>

According to the Kirin Brewery company whose mascot is the Kirin:

 “The Japanese art tends to depict the kirin as more deer-like than in Chinese art. Alternatively, it is depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer, but with an ox’s tail instead of a lion’s tail. The Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd., is named after the animal and uses a picture of one in its labels. They are also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Post-Qin Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot. This is following the style of the ancient Chinese, as qilin was ranked higher than the dragon or phoenix before the Qin dynasty. During the Zhou dynasty, the qilin was ranked the highest, the phoenix ranked second, and the dragon the third.” — “The Kirin: a mythological beast that portends happiness”. Kirin Brewing company.

According to North Korean tradition, Kiringul (Korean: 기린굴; “Kirin’s Grotto”) is a cave in North Korea said to have been the home of the kirin, a mythological chimeric beast that was reputedly ridden by King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo in the 1st century BC.


History of the Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社 Yasaka-jinja?), once called Gion Shrine (祇園神社 Gion-jinja?), is a Shinto shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto, Japan. Situated at the east end of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue), the shrine includes several buildings, including gates, a main hall and a stage. Initial construction on the Shrine began in 656. The Shrine became the object of Imperial patronage during the early Heian period.

In 965, Emperor Murakami ordered that Imperial messengers be sent to report important events to the guardian kami of Japan. These heihaku were initially presented to 16 shrines; and in 991, that composite list of shrines included by the Gion Shrine, ie Yasaka Shrine. From 1871 through 1946, Yasaka Shrine was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

In 869 the mikoshi (divine palanquin) of Gion Shrine were paraded through the streets of Kyoto to ward off an epidemic that had hit the city. This was the beginning of the Gion Matsuri, an annual festival which has become world famous.


Further readings:

Kirin |

For a quick global survey of unicorns around the world, see Diana Peterfreund’s Unicorn research

The Ethiopian unicorn, see Chap. 10 of Mythical Monsters by Charles Gould

Unicorn of the East: Kirin in The Twelve Kingdoms Myth and pop culture combine. By Niko Silvester  (April 04, 2011)


What’s in a flower? The Chrysanthemum vs Hollyhock : Royals vs. Samurai-daimyos


According to tradition, the Tokugawa forces were in opposition to the royal family and this is seen in Tokugawa’s refusal to accept the royal clan’s mon or crest, but favouring his own clan’s.

According to Mark W. MacWilliams (Pilgrimages — Canton to Chichibu), the Tokugawa crest …

“is believed to stem from a mythical clan, the Kamo clan, which legendarily descended from Yatagarasu, a Matsudaira village in the Higashikamo District of Japan.

Imperial family crest

Imperial family crest, a stylized chrysanthemum blossom Source: Mon (Wikimedia Commons)

The legend goes that Emperor Go-Yōzei presented a new imperial crest (presumably a design based on the imperial Chrysanthemum emblem above) of the Minamoto clan, to the Tokugawa founder, but Ieyasu declined the new symbol. Instead, he favored the old crest(below which is an inverted variation of the Matsudaira crest), thereby showing the bearer’s allegiance to the shogunate. In this way, he showed support for the shogunate as opposed to the monarchists, whose cause is symbolized by the Imperial throne’s chrysanthemum crest as seen at the Imperial Palace (“Japanese Family Crest”).”

Tokugawa crest, Source: Mon (Wikimedia Commons)

Tokugawa’s “triple hollyhock” crest, Source: Mon (Wikimedia Commons)

Matsudaira clan (松平氏 Matsudaira-shi) was a Japanese samurai clan that claimed descent from the Minamoto clan. It first originated in and took its name from Matsudaira village, in Mikawa Province (modern-day Aichi Prefecture). Over the course of its history, the clan produced many branches, most of which also centered on Mikawa Province.

Matsudaira crest

Matsudaira crest

In the 16th century, the main Matsudaira line experienced a meteoric rise to success during the headship of Matsudaira Motoyasu, who changed his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu and became the first Tokugawa shogun. Ieyasu’s line formed what became the Tokugawa clan; however, the branches retained the Matsudaira surname. Other branches were formed in the decades after Ieyasu, which bore the Matsudaira surname. Some of those branches were also of daimyo status. See Tokugawa Ieyasu, the former Matsudaira Motoyasu depicted below along with the crest.

The crest is believed to stem from a mythical clan, the Kamo clan, which according to legend, descended from Yatagarasu, a Matsudaira village in the Higashikamo District of Japan. The Aoi hollyhock is the emblem celebrated in the Aoi Festival held by the two Kamo shrines, a festival dating back to the 7th c. (p. 34, Japan Encyclopedia) – Kamigamo-jinja and the Shimogamo-jinja every May 15, which is an agricultural festival to pray for an abundant harvest and protection against disaster. The Kamo shrines enshrine the Wakeikazuchi no Kami, son of Tamayori-hime and brother of the legendary first Emperor Jimmu Tenno.

Predating Kyoto‘s establishment as the national capital in 794, the Aoi Matsuri began in the 7th century. There were natural disasters occurring that were believed to be caused by the deities of the Kamo Shrines. After the Emperor made offerings to the gods, the disasters subsided and a tradition was begun. The Aoi hollyhock is believed to ward off thunderstorms and earthquakes (see Aoi Matsuri Hollyhock Festival). The two Kamo shrines are thus regarded as the protector shrines of the Imperial Palace and capital (source: p. 201 Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan by William E. Deal).

Kamo-jinja priests in Kyoto used the Aoi flower motif as insignia for the shrine. Although Ieyasu Tokugawa never used the surname Matsudaira before 1566, his appointment as shogun was contingent on his claim to Matsudaira kinship and a link to the Seiwa Genji (who were the most successful and powerful line of the Japanese Minamoto clan that were descended from Emperor Seiwa). However, some members of the Tokugawa family were known devotee worshippers at the Kamo-jinja shrine. The Tokugawa family used the Aoi as their insignia, and families not related to the Tokugawa were forbidden the use of the insignia (source: Japan Encyclopedia by  Louis-Frédéric). This led to a belief that the Tokugawa may have actually descended from the Kamo clan, (賀茂氏 Kamo-shi) which is a Japanese sacerdotal kin group thought to have had roots in the Yayoi period. The clan rose to prominence during the Asuka and Heian periods when the Kamo are identified with the 7th-century founding of the Kamo Shrine.

During the Aoi Matsuri festival, some 500 people wearing splendid ancient costumes and traditional make-up parade through the main streets of Kyoto. The extravagant parade is in the style of the ancient Heian Court. Everything in the parade is adorned with the hollyhock leaf crest, also called “aoi” … aoi leaves are used as ornaments not only on the people’s costumes, but even on cows and horses, so this festival came to be called Aoi Matsuri.

Japanese women dressed in traditional costumes walk in the procession of the Aoi Festival at the Imperial Palace on May 15, 2013 in Kyoto, Japan. Aoi Festival is one of the three main festivals of ancient capital of Kyoto that festival is dating back 1,400 years. About 500 participants dressed as nobles of the Heian Period (794-1185) costumes, walk with decorated ox carts and horse around eight kilometers from Kyoto Imperial Palace to Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines.

Source: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images AsiaPac

The festival re-enacts the procession of officials delivering the Emperor’s message and offerings to the two shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo. The most important position held in the parade is the messenger on horseback wearing a gold sword at his side, who is followed by a train of attendants. The highlight of the procession is the parade of women accompanying the proxy of the imperial princess serving the deities.

Further readings:

Mark W. MacWilliams’ Pilgrimages to Bosatsu-East and West; Imperial Family and Nationalistic Pride

Aoi Matsuri

Aoi Matsuri (Japan Guide)

Otomo clan – The Kamo clan is also closely related to the Otomo clan who helped establish the Ashikaga shogunate (source: Ôtomo-no-Sakanoue-no-Iratsume’s Visit to the Kamo Shrine)