Last weeks saw the annual festival of the Yoyogi Hachimangu, a grand shrine located very scenically on top of a hill in Northern Shibuya Ward. Thanks to the good weather there were lot of people out and about in the area and up around the shrine it was standing room only, just as usual. I missed the Awaodori parade up to the main shrine building but instead I spent a bit more time with the omikoshi as they moved around the shrine. I have a lot of respect for the people who carry these, it is easily the most physically intense activity I have ever tried. It might look easy but it sure isn’t! My favorite guy was the man with the glasses who took turns carrying the omikoshi and manhandling the drums. His drumming skills were top notch and provided great entertainment to the crowd of people who followed him. If you visit Japan you need to make sure you see this at least once!
This weekend saw the annual two day Shinagawa-Shukumatsuri (品川宿場まつり), most famous for its Oiran parade. The festival is to celebrate the hugely important old Tokaido, which was an ancient “highway” connecting all the province capitals of the southern central part of Japan. In Edo times, the main part of the route started at Tokyo’s Nihonbashi (hence the old saying “All roads lead to Nihonbashi”, not Rome, in this case) and ended up in Kyoto. The trip which was 487.8km took 12 days and was absolutely all inclusive. The road was well maintained with paving, guards, toll stations and trees were even planted along the road to protect the travelers from sun and wind. On the road there were 53 waystations, or Shukuba (宿場) where travelers could change horses, hire porters or palanquins, get fed and find a place to sleep. Naturally the Shukuba competed to attract customers so there were also entertainment, bars, souvenirs and special food to entice people to spend their nights. You can still see these traditions carried on at the many highway rest stops around Japan. The word “shuku” is often to be found in place names, so it is easy to figure out if place used to a shukuba on the Tokaido or any of the many other classical highways in Japan. Shinjuku is a good example, the word meaning “the new shuku”.
The first of the Shukuba was the one in Shinagawa (only 7.8km from Nihonbashi), in present day Kitashinagawa. Being so close to Tokyo it must have been popular with people who wanted to get rested before the final part of the trip or even people from Edo not traveling but still wanting to sample the atmosphere. At Kitashinagawa the highway is still there and the width of the street has been preserved. To celebrate the old shukuba tradition the oiran parade is held on the first day of the festival. Unlike the Oiran parade in Asakusa, there are several oiran taking part in this one and the popularity of the festival is increasing for every year. This year there was quite a lot of media coverage and of course the crowds grew quite a lot. The parade stretch is about 2km though, so if you avoid the most crowded spots you should be able to find a good spot to view it!
Oiran are famous for these parades which used to be held every evening when the oiran (think a very old fashioned geisha) used to go from her house to the restaurant or home of a client. The lavish parade was part of the high status, and she was always accompanied by an umbrella carrier, an assistant and any number of hanger ons, staff, apprentices and bosses. Oiran would wear very tall, three pronged clogs and walk in a slow fashion, sweeping her legs in front of her at every step of the way. It must have been something to see and I can imagine quite inconvenient for people in a hurry along these narrow streets.
Like last year I went to the Nezu Shrine festival, but this time my main goal was to watch the fantastic performance by the Nezu Gongendaiko (根津権現太鼓) taiko drum group. Unfortunately rains kept them from performing for a while so they only gave a short version of their regular performance but it was still great. Taiko drumming is essentially a group effort. Team play is hugely important and also much more interesting to watch. It takes a huge amount of training to become as good as this group, but most schools have taiko groups so there are a lot of people with the potential to move forward. Taiko drumming is also very open to change. Many free groups are experimenting with the style and you never quite know what to expect when watching a performance. The future looks very bright for Taiko drumming!
The Nezu Shrine on the edge of Bunkyo Ward but very close to the neighboring Taito Ward in the old heart of Tokyo is a great setting for a summer festival. The shrine buildings are interesting enough but there’s also plenty of topography, a bridge and a few ponds. One of my favorite shrines in Tokyo the festival is also one of my favorites. I hardly had time to visit this year so I just came for one of the taiko performances but since it was delayed due to the sudden rain (taiko drums and rain does not go well together) I had time to aim my camera at other things for a few minutes. I’ll post images from the taiko performance later!
Nezu Shrine is easy to access from Nezu or Sendagi stations on the Chiyoda subway line, or you can use the Todaimae station on the Namboku line. If you want to do some sight seeing I can really recommend the nice and quiet little neighborhood to the east of the shrine down to the famous Ueno park and the nearby Ueno station. A longer but interesting walk.