Last month’s Yoshiwara Gionsai was just as exciting and fun as usual. I could only make it there for the second day, missing the huge tree procession of the day before. One of the peculiar things about this local festival is the omikoshi which is covered in bamboo grass and moved in a way that is different from most other omikoshi. It is take around the parish districts by teams divided by neighborhood and at each handover an ceremony where a bottle of sea water is emptied over the head of the headsman of the omikoshi team. Although many omikoshi teams are now unisex this one is still only open to males, for at least one obvious reason I would only discover when actually trying to lift the omikoshi: it is incredibly physically demanding and space is very limited, so you need as many of the strongest people you can fit, and preferably all of the same height! There is even several points in the procession where the omikoshi stops and is jumped up and down. I don’t know if the sense of fear is stronger than the sense of pain and exhaustion, but failure is not an option!
It is great fun to follow the omikoshi careening through the streets. In the old days it used to be even wilder and different neighborhoods would wrestle for control of it – in mid procession! But a few years ago a straying omikoshi took out a whole stand of festival food and it was decided to calm things down a bit. The women of the neighborhood are kept busy – preparing and handling the hand over ceremonies, following the omikoshi around cooling it off with water and making sure not too many innocent bystanders are caught in the procession!
All in all great fun and if you are in Shizuoka (or in Tokyo and don’t mind the train travel) I can really recommend this festival for next year!
One of the great spring festivals of Tokyo, the Yushima Tenjin Matsuri was as good as usual this year too. I didn’t have much time to spend on it, but I managed to be there for when the omikoshi entered the shrine for the end of the first day’s ceremonies. The omikoshi of this shrine is quite tall and the historical bronze tori (the gate at the front of every shrine, this one being the oldest bronze tori in existence in Tokyo) is quite short making for an interesting moment when the omikoshi is carefully maneuvered into the shrine grounds. Clearing the tori always elicits a cheer from the audience of festival goers!
The path from the tori to the main shrine is usually lined with all kinds of yatai, selling food, drinks and games to adults and kids. One of the most popular is the classic “kingyosuku” or Goldfish Rescue where kids try to fish as many goldfish as possible from a tub of water using a thin piece of paper. I can never understand how they do it. However some parents are not too fond of the idea of a yearly increase of live goldfish so the alternative game of Rubber Ball Rescue is usually even more popular. Fish a certain number of balls from a tub of water. Not as challenging but the kids love picking out their favorite balls. If you have kids and visit a Japanese festival, this might be the best game you can have them try out as the owners of the stands never let a kid go home empty handed!
A couple of weeks ago we had a whole bunch of fantastic festivals to chose from and I did my best to try and catch as many of them as possible. Sometimes you just can’t do them all though! One of my favorites is the annual spring festival at Yushima Tenjin in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, just on the edge of Ueno! The shrine is famous for its focus on learning and education and you can tell by the rather lavish parade that the shrine is doing well in terms of support. There were rickshaws, professional omikoshi bearers and even horses taking part in this year’s festival procession that spent two days winding it’s way through all the streets of the parish.
Sanjamatsuri, the biggest festival in Japan, that took place a month ago is naturally famous for its crowded streets and huge amounts of people (nearly two million visitors on the main two days). One of the peaks of the festival is when the neighborhood omikoshi are brought up to greet the big Sensoji temple. As close to the stairs as possible, where dozens of police officers work hard to maintain orders and hundreds of volunteers do their best to direct the over one hundred omikoshi to enter the temple grounds, receive their blessing and exit as quickly as possible. You can’t tell from these photos, but behind the temple there is a several hours long traffic jam as different omikoshi converge on their routes to the temple and the neighboring Asakusa shrine. I managed to get relatively close to the main action and got these photos of the a few omikoshi teams approaching the temple. Some of the omikoshi are special children’s omikoshi, staffed only by kids. There are even different omikoshi for different age groups and I caught one of the tiniest omikoshi in the entire festival in a couple of photos. Too cute for words!
This is how you build a homogenous, well functioning society based on shared experiences, shared values and above all, participation.