I hadn’t been to many bonodori festivals this summer so I was happy to find one scheduled for the final night of the large Hikawa Shrine festival in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. The bonodori is a rather complicated dance with music that makes it sound very like Sunday matinee movie from the late 1940s. It takes place around a raised podium where a taiko drummer helps keep the rhythm and it is usually performed in the traditional summer dress of Japan, the yukata (think kimono light). In a land with many dances and tradition thousands of years old it is good to see that new traditions are still slowly being grown, like this kind of dance. I imagine people in 1000 years will be dancing this to the exact same music and with the same movements as we do today.
As many bonodori festivals I have been to, this must surely be the most perfect. The space is not too large, not too small, and above all, it takes place under the trees! The red lanterns combine with the canopy of leaves to create a once in a lifetime perfect “room” for the dance to take place. I might be the only one to notice, but such perfection leaves me in tears these days. When I imagine the ideal bonodori location, this was it. I just didn’t know it really existed. I know bonodori ranks very low on the list of exciting festivals to see or experience, even for local Japanese, but if you are into it, this is the one to visit. It usually starts on the Sunday of the festival at 1830, but music starts much earlier, usually at 17300, and the drummers are always there early to warm up.
The Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社) in Minato Ward (there are hundreds all over Japan) is easily accessible from Akasaka, Tameikesanno, Nogizaka, Roppongi or Roppongi Ichome stations.
Sunday was the main day of the large Konnohachimangu festival, or the Shibuya festival. Lots of omikoshi (not as old as the one I blogged about yesterday) gathered for the main blessing ceremony right in front of the famous 109 department store just a stone’s throw from the even more famous Shibuya Scramble street crossing (arguably the center of Japan today). The streets were packed with the many different neighborhood omikoshi, and even though Shibuya is hardly a residential area these days there were plenty of volunteers from outside of the area as well. Although the main ceremony was over in a few minutes the omikoshi teams kept going for hours afterwards, all around Shibuya!
With all the festivals taking place in and around Tokyo you are bound to see dozens of different omikoshi, portable shrine that temporarily houses the kami or Gods, of the shrine during festivals. Every shrine worth its salt has at least one and sometimes up to a handful of these omikoshi. They are still manufactured by specialist artisans and obviously very expensive. In a way these omikoshi represent the accumulated wealth of many generations of locals, which means that shrines can afford to add to their collection over time. These days there are special omikoshi for children and I have even seen tiny ones for kindergartens.
In the old days however omikoshi were still relatively rare and not all shrines had one of their own or even access to one (sometimes shrines can borrow omikoshi from neighbors if they do not have any of their own). And here is where the interesting story on how the oldest omikoshi in Tokyo now resides with the Konnohachimangu Grand Shrine in Shibuya, where it is peacefully retired.
In the early Edo period (probably sometime in the early 1600s) the Konnouhachimangu still had no omikoshi of its own, despite it being a grand shrine. Another shrine of the same family, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura (about 45km south-west of Shibuya) in the province of Sagami (modern day Kanagawa prefecture), however, famously had seven omikoshi of its own. One summer, a group of young men from the Aoyama militia went down to Kamakura to help the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu with their annual festival, handling one of the seven omikoshi. Their purpose was initially to plead with the shrine officials to let them borrow one of the omikoshi for the upcoming festival in Shibuya but once they arrived they got sidetracked by the food and the drink offered them by the locals in Kamakura. As drunk as they were, they decided to take one of the omikoshi out for a spin, but instead of doing the rounds and then returning to the shrine together with the other omikoshi for the final ceremony of the annual festival, they just kept going towards Edo. Even as night fell they crossed the border into Kawasaki and just kept on going through the fields, through villages over bridges and hills. The shrine officials and locals in Kamakura eventually figured out that one of the omikoshi was missing and sent out runners to track it down. The runners soon found the tracks of the drunken men from Aoyama and set out to intercept them.
In those days there were naturally no street lighting and the road between Kamakura and Edo was only lit by the stars and the moon on the open streches and pitch black when it entered a forest or stands of bamboo. As the night wore on the men from Aoyama grew very tired carrying the heavy omikoshi, going through Kawasaki, over the Tama river and deeper into Edo, all the while chased by the angry men from Kamakura. At the Meguro river they came to a slope known as the Kurayamisaka (which means Slope of Darkness) that was famous for being so dark at night that a traveler could not see even the road ahead of him. The Kamakura men lost track of the omikoshi in the pitch black darkness and finally gave up and started the long walk back to Kamakura.
As the now sober Aoyama militia came charging through the gates of the Konnohachimangu it was decided by everyone involved that it was best to lay low for awhile and ever since then one of the seven Kamakura omikoshi has been residing in Shibuya.
The omikoshi might have arrived in Shibuya at the early 17th century but it is actually much older than that, having been made during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), making it the oldest omikoshi in Tokyo by far. If you go to the shrine in Shibuya you can see it for yourself, this over 800 year old treasure “kidnapped” from Kamakura.
I think this story should be made into a movie. It would be hilarious.
This Saturday Tokyo was practically saturated with festivals. There were too many to even consider trying to see more than a few of them. On Saturday evening I visit the bigger than expected Nebuta Matsuri at Sakurashinmachi. The Nebuta festival is the most famous cultural export out of Aomori Prefecture up north, one of the most all-in festivals of the country with huge paper sculptures lit from within, thousands of dancers in what at first looks like a mosh pit at a punk festival, huge drums and a very addictive flute melody that tends to get itself stuck in your mind for days. In other words, great fun! Aomori prefecture is very far from Tokyo so there are quite a few festivals around Tokyo bringing Aomori to the city rather than the other way around.
Sakurashinmachi is famous for two things, horses and Sazaesan, the massively popular long running animated TV show featuring a multi-generational family living in this town. So over half of the Nebuta decorations are Sazaesan-themed and very popular with the kids! It is easy to get here, by the Denentoshi Line connecting with the Hanzomon Subway line in Shibuya. More photos to come!