In Nagano Prefecture, way to the north of Tokyo I visited Suwa City and their Suwa Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest shrines, having been founded sometime in the 8th century A.D. It’s age and status meant that is was once one of the holiest places in country. Most shrines have a building called Honden that actually enshrines the kami or God that it honors, but these very old shrines usually do not have a Honden, in this case it is because the kami of the shrine is the mountain itself. Taisha means that is is a grand shrine, in this case the head shrine of well over 25 000 shrines all over the country. There is plenty of archaeological evidence for the Suwa area to have been associated with a very prosperous and powerful dynasty due to the discovery of richly decorated pottery unlike other places in the country. This could explain the mythological and cultural reason why this shrine became so important.
The shrine has plenty of details to discover, in addition to being very beautiful. One of the fountains where you perform the ritual washing before approaching the shrine is actually a natural hot spring and the thick cloud of steams are probably enough to convince visitors to wash their hands and mouth in colder waters (see the last photo). As you approach the shrine you encounter a massive cedar tree called the Neiri Sugi which is believed to be 700 or 800 years old. During ushimitsu (丑三つ), the hour of the ox, it is said to go to sleep and if you stand beneath it at that hour (between two and half past two in the morning) you can hear the tree snore. Fallen branches of the trees are popular with young parents, as it is said that a brew of the branches from this tree will stop them from crying in the night.
The Suwa Taisha, like the Izumo Taisha, has several massive Shimenawa decorating the shrine buildings. The shimenawa binds the holy space together and acts as a guard agains evil spirits. Apart from shrines, you will often see these ropes around especially holy objects, stones and trees that often attracts spirits (both good and bad). I assume the weight of the biggest shimenawa at Suwa Taisha is about a ton at least.
If you are around in Tokyo or Saitama at the end of the month I recommend you visit the grand Kawagoe Haru Matsuri, the spring festival held in old Kawagoe town every year (well, for the last 24 years anyway). There’s a parade of musketmen firing real muskets (absolutely the loudest noise you will ever hear), ladder acrobatics, and traditional dances and performances by local kids, like these two young taiko drummers performing in the rain at last year’s festival. They were a huge hit with the older ladies performing a traditional dance around them! It’s great to see that the younger generations are picking up on the old traditions. These photos are from last year’s spring festival but I am sure this one will be similar (there isn’t much official information online yet, but the opening event will be held on the 29th of March and then there will be something every weekend until the beginning of May).
In Tokyo people do their best to make the most of any little space they can find and recently the space underneath the elevated rail lines are getting some much needed revitalization by the Japan Railways Urban Development Corporation. The spaces underneath the railway lines have always been used for various things, storage areas, shops, restaurants and even galleries. The 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan is the latest of these multi-use spaces, underneath the Yamanote line between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations. Well, it is not all that recent actually. The space is shared by a number of artisan shops and craftsmen, selling everything from kaleidoscope kits to plastic art. If you are into crafts and handmade items it is great place to visit.
The name is the usual portmanteau that Japanese corporations love! 2k540 is a railway term for the distance from Tokyo Station, two kilometers and 540 meters. Aki is short for Akihabara and Oka is short for Okachimachi (the place is about 1/3 of the way closer to Okachimachi station than to Akihabara station). Right now there are about 46 shops and galleries and 4 cafes and restaurants. I couldn’t try any of them out since they were all full when I visited on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The official website is here, unfortunately no information in English so far. The stores also do not allow photography so the photos are little limited!
It is very easy to find your way here even without a map. Just get off the JR Okachimachi station and walk towards Akihabara along the elevated railway. Or the other way around.
At Yushima Tenjin’s Umematsuri (Plum blossom festival) I got totally carried away with the fun and energy of the crowd carrying the omikoshi around the shrine and took loads of pictures. During summer I typically go to see one or two festivals every week but in the winter there are so few opportunities to see them. The festival was in honor of the plum blossoms, which indeed made a brave appearance in the cold rain, white and bright pink ones. Come summer there will probably be hundreds of kilos of plums ready for the harvest here, hopefully turned into pickled sour plums or umeshu, the super sweet plum liquor.
After having completed its rounds around the shrine, the omikoshi is carried towards the main torii, or gate. The torii of Yushima Tenjin is very special, as it is made in bronze rather than the more common wood (or even concrete). It is also the oldest bronze torii in Tokyo, dating back to 1667. How it survived World War 2 fundraising campaigns and firebombing raids I have no idea. The shrine is also popular with students hoping for admission to the university of their choice. I found one ema, or votive plaque, where some talented person had offered a prayer to get into Yokohama national university. Good luck!
Having been presented to the priests and gods at the main shrine, the omikoshi is then carried around the shrine to the stage at the back where it is hoisted one last time for the people. I was lucky and got a good spot to take photos from. As many people as possible are crammed around the omikoshi to help it get to where it is supposed to go, but as you can see all those people doesn’t make for very much accuracy in movement! The omikoshi almost rammed the director of the group but he was kept up by other supporters with a firm grip on his belt. The omikoshi which can weigh as much as a ton, is much easier to handle with fewer people, as you can see in the last few photos when the ceremony is over and the omikoshi is taken back to its resting place at the side of the shrine.
I can hardly wait for the summer festivals to start up again!