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!
Sometimes you are just lucky here in Tokyo. On Sunday I was walking through the neighborhood of Yushima right on the edge of Bunkyo ward, next to Ueno. I wasn’t expecting to walk into a festival complete with omikoshi and men and women dressed in white hatten coats. These festivals are very rare in the winter, especially in February and March but it seems that the flowering of the plum trees are a big deal here at the famous Yushima Tenjin shrine. The weather was quite bad, with a cold rain and a massive overcast sky. It was colder than usual even for the season but the locals did a good job in carrying their omikoshi around the streets bordering the shrine.
The area of Yushima is one of the oldest in Tokyo. In the old days you could see the sea from the high ground of Yushima, and arriving on boats it looked like a small island which explains part of its name, shima (island). Today the area is part of Bunkyo Ward but between 1887 and 1947 it was the center of the old Hongo Ward, when Tokyo was still known as Tokyo City (東京市) unlike today’s official designation as Tokyo Metropolis (東京都) and consisted of 35 wards compared to today’s 23 special wards.
I’ll post more photos of this rare early March festival, so stay tuned!