One of the most enduring images of Japan, at least in the minds of westerners, is the geisha. Few other professions have reached such a mythological status as the geisha. They were the most refined entertainment money could buy back in the old days. They knew the popular songs, they could play all the instruments, dance and sing and entertain both men and women who were stressed out from work or social responsibilities. In an age before mass entertainment, if you had the cash you hired a geisha. The social practice still lives on in Japan (and elsewhere), but these days it is in the much more egalitarian (in that it is available for both men and women and that training is fast and simple) and affordable in the form of hostess clubs, host bars, “pubs” and other variations of trades still know by the old euphemism “the water trade”. The traditional geisha of old still exists in modern Japan, but they are more viewed as beloved carriers of centuries old tradition and culture than mere entertainment. And the prices are still of the reach for ordinary mortals.
Tokyo has several areas known as “Yoshiwara”, where the were large concentrations of geisha houses, in the traditional entertainment districts (always near the richest areas) of the city. The most famous one is the Yoshiwara in Asakusa, near the Sumida River in the north east of central Tokyo. During the annual and massive Sanja Matsuri (Festival of the Three Shrines) a few of the local geisha take part in the parades, as much for the benefit of their neighborhood as for advertising themselves I think. They are followed by their entourage of fan bearers or parasol carriers and maid servants holding up signs with the names of the geisha and their houses. For most people, this is the only chance to ever see a geisha in real life. Where once there were geisha houses in every city across the country, these days there are very very few remaining. I was once lucky enough, many years ago, to be invited to a geisha dinner in Kyoto, the dinner tab must have been astronomical! Of course I couldn’t help but asking the geisha seated next to me, a young lady at 25, what she did on her days off: “Oh the usual, I go for walks, I like to travel, I go to the movies or chat with friends online”. The geisha of Asakusa, at least the ones in these photos, regularly perform in dance, theatre and culture shows in and around Asakusa.
The Sanja Festival in Asakusa is one of those epic moments of Tokyo, something that has to be seen to be imagined. For just a very few days an entire city within the city, attracting between a half and and a million people on each of the three days it takes place. Over one hundred omikoshi, porable shrines, are paraded around the streets and most streets are blocked for vehicle traffic. If you are in Tokyo May 17th to May 20th, consider yourself lucky! However, a lot of Tokyoites can’t stand the Sanja Festival, due to it being extremely crowded and by Tokyo standards very rough and rowdy. Still, considering the size and the amount of alcohol consumed by both participants and tourists, it is remarkably safe and relaxed. It is great to see all aspects of modern society united to celebrate a local festival: young families withs strollers share the streets with old couples in wheelchairs while young bravados carry huge shrines through the streets as gangsters pose with their posses next to police officers patiently watching to make sure there are no accidents, all in the same scene, the rich and poor, the young and the old, the law and the outlaws, all together in the spirit of the festival. Or as I like to say, a civilized society in good working order.
Today and tomorrow is the peak of the week long Chichibuyo Matsuri, or the the Chichibu Night Festival. It is hands down the best winter festival in the Kanto area and possibly the last great festival of the year. I would love to go there but scheduling conflicts will keep me firmly put here in Tokyo. Chichibu is located north west of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, and a little too far to go just for a couple of hours in the evening. If you have all day today or tomorrow I really recommend heading up there though! You can read my posts about last year’s festival over here. The best way to get from Tokyo to Chichibu is by trains leaving from Ikebukuro. There are several lines and different train options depending on your budget and it is a fantastic combination trip to see both the evening festival and the autumn leaves in nearby Nagatoro.
Another great festival that also started out as a night festival is the Kurayami Matsuri in Tokyo’s south-western Chufu City. This festival is famous for it’s massive drums that require a crew of over twenty to operate and move around. These drums are so large that two or more persons usually stand on top of them! I took these photos of the much smaller children’s drums, as well as a couple of shots of the other famous thing in the Kurayami festival, the large and colorful mantou which are spun by the largest and strongest dancers of the community. You can see my other posts about the Kurayami festival here.
I took these photos after the rain we had during this year’s Shibuya festival let up. The omikoshi of the famous Dogenzaka neighborhood that traditionally starts in front of Shibuya station and goes up towards Shinsen station was out in force, the only concession to the rain being the plastic wrapped around the paper lanterns.
The origins of the name Dogenzaka is contested, but the slope can be named after an old temple that used to be located on the top of the hill. During the Edo period the road was surrounded by wild woods and fields with a clear view of Mount Fuji at the end. As Edo became Tokyo in the later part of the 19th century Dogenzaka became a market place for farmers selling their produce and Shibuya was developed as modern westernized town with electric street lights and everything. These days it is hard to believe that Dogenzaka was ever anything else than highly developed commercial district, but in fact there is a short row of five buildings that are almost 90 years old and survived several earthquakes and a World War. I will save that story for a later blog post though. There are a few interesting photos on this site of old historical Dogenzaka.
I was suprised to read that 758 people are officially registered as living in Dougenzaka, I think quite a good percentage of them joined in the Shibuya festival and helped carry their omikoshi, men, women and quite a lot of kids! They did a great job stopping the traffic while the omikoshi slowly passed.
Someday I would love to talk to someone who was born and lived all their life in Dogenzaka. They must have some incredible stories to tell!
I took these photos at the massive Kawagoe Matsuri a few weeks ago, the last of the major summer festivals in the Kanto area. From now on there is a handful of winter and festivals and then preparations start up for next year’s festival season once again! Kawagoe Matsuri is famous for its historic Dashi, large mobile wagon that look and feel more like mobile platforms complete with lights, lanterns, performers and dancers. If made new, these dashi costs between twenty and fifty million yen and it is very rare for new ones to be delivered, I have only seen one I think, so far, and that was in Shizuoka prefecture.
The point of the dashi is not mere entertainment though. It is paid for, maintained and housed by the local residents in the neighborhood it represents, making it far too expensive to be a thing for simple fun. Instead, it is purposefully made to be as big and cumbersome as possible, in an effort to involve as many local people as possible in its maintenance and handling. It isn’t merely expensive and dangerous by accident, it is supposed to be! The real objective of course, is to create, maintain and train a cohesive social community where everyone from the smallest children to the oldest residents are both welcome and needed. This constant training, this constant communication and decision making, fund raising and operation glues the community together in a way that would be impossible in any other form. Having a socially cohesive and functioning community in peace time is vital in times of war or natural disaster, and the dashi becomes the focal point for this community building and training. In the countryside this happens naturally at the farmers associations and cooperatives that all farmers, hunters and livestock keepers in Japan must be a member of. You won’t get far in Japan trying to do things alone, and the lone wolf is just a short step from social outcast. In the city where there is a more competitive commercial atmosphere, the people are even more dependent on this sort of training to build a community that can guarantee their survival in difficult situations. Obviously, city people are many hundred times vulnerable to natural disasters than people in the countryside. I saw this social structure in full working order when I visited the tsunami hit regions of the north west in March and April 2011. I am quite sure that things would have been worse for everyone if people had not had this constant training and community spirit.
I am sorry for the blurry poorly exposed photos in this series, but I was entering the street just as the huge dashi and the dozens of people attending to it sprung into action, and people running to take up their positions. It is a fantastic thing to be near one of these as they come rumbling at full speed (slightly slower than a leisurely stroll for the average pensioner…) down the street. It is a little bit like watching a well oiled crew operating an old sailing ship!