During the Edo period after the end of the Civil Wars one of the ways that peace was kept was to have the ruling provincial lords to live close together in the capital where the Shogun could keep an eye on them. The Daimyo (provincial level lords) live in grand walled estates called Yashiki, the grandest of which was like a miniature city within the city while the smallest was merely a large house with a garden, a wall and sometimes a ceremonial moat to separate it from the city. Many of the Yashiki also had dedicated shrines where the people who lived there could pray. After the Edo period ended the old Yashiki system was abolished and most of the grand Tokyo estates were broken up into smaller pieces or turned into parks or gardens. The shrines sometimes remained though, and to this day it is possible to find several of these scattered around central Tokyo to show where a grand estate house once stood. I have heard there are 16 of them but I am not sure.
I found one of these Edo Yashiki shrines in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, the Taro Inari Jinja (Shrine). This used to be the estate shrine of the Tachibana House of the Yanagawa clan, who ruled souther Fukuoka province on the Island of Kyushu. The estate and the shrine was established here around 1660. This is the only remains of the old estate, even though some of the lots are still in the hands of the original noble family members who seem to be in the hotel business (not sure on this one).
The thing that made me notice this shrine however was the fact that the Torii, the red gate in front of all shrines and holy places, has actually been incorporated into the neighboring building when it was erected, a torii shaped hole has been made in the building wall itself! No matter how crowded Tokyo gets, you can’t really ask the Gods to move!
At the Sanja Matsuri this year I was in time to catch a performance by the Furisodesan, a group of performers in the style of geisha, dancing and entertaining at the kagura (shrine stage) of the Asakusa Shrine just next to the famous Sensoji temple. The beautiful young women visit restaurants and entertainment houses to perform for the clients but sometimes they also give performances for the public, like on this festival. They were certainly hugely popular with the crowds at this sunny festival day!
November is getting closer and with it the annual torinoichi markets. You might have seen the often very colorful and excessively large kumade (熊手) at shops, homes and offices around Tokyo. The names can be very confusing, Torinoichi literally translates as Rooster Market (the bird) but it has nothing to do with birds. Also the kumade often called “rakes” in English are actually Bear Paws as the Japanese names makes it look like, but acutally large fan shaped bamboo structures traditionally decorated with masks and painted gold coins (koban). The name torinochi, bird market, comes from the tradition of holding these markets on the day of the rooster, which is every twelfth day in November. So each year there are two or three market days. The torinoichi days of 2014 fall on Monday the 10th and Saturday the 22nd. The first day is called Ichinotori (一の酉) and the second day is called Ninotori (二の酉).
The whole traditions started in Asakusa, at the famous Otori Shrine roughly around the 1750-1760 and were meant to celebrate the mythological Gods Ameno-Hiwashino-Mikoto and Yamato-Takeruno-Mikoto. The kumade are purchased and brought home or to your business to invoke good luck, fortune and success for the coming year or to give thanks for the past year. They are usually displayed near or at the home altar or somewhere in the office or in the shop. The bigger the kumade the more expensive they get so most of the people I know who buy these are small business owners, having them in your home is a bit more unusual but they would make for absolutely unique souvenirs.
The Otori shrine itself is not much to see on non-market days, it is rather small and crammed in between grey concrete office buildings but on the days of the torinoichi it comes alive with about 300 market stalls. The selling is very colorful and each transaction is marked with a rhythmic hand clapping, the customer and seller together.
The Otori shrine is located north of Sensoji in Asakusa, maybe a 15 minutes walk from the Asakusa subway station, but there are several other shrines organizing torinoichi markets around Tokyo and the kanto area. The most famous ones in Tokyo being in Hanazono shrine in Shinjuku and in Sensoji itself.
You can see the kumade and the ceremonies and the stalls at my older posts:
A tradition associated with this festival and shrine but which is completely gone now and will never re-appear is the opening of the gates to the Yoshiwara district. The small gated city within the city of old Edo was completely closed off to common people but on these market days it would open its gates to anyone and it was a great chance for the business owners inside the Yoshiwara to organize a small market and to earn a bit of extra income before the debt- and tax collectors would show up in December to demand the final payments for the year. The Yoshiwara district was opened to the public in the late 19th century, almost burnt down in 1913 and the last of the gates were destroyed in the 1923 earthquake. In 1958 the district was finally abolished by the government.
The little bar/cafe on top of the tourist information building in front of the Kaminari temple gate is probably one of Asakusa’s best kept secrets hiding in plain sight. Surprisingly reasonably priced for such an epic location, you can do worse than ending up here if you are one of the millions of foreign tourists visiting Asakusa this year.