The biggest event in Tokyo of the year has started, the massive Sanja Matsuri drawing a couple of million visitors and participants during the three main days of the event. Today is the second day of the event and while I do not have any photos of this year’s festival here are some more from the 2013 Sanja Matsuri. If you are a tourist in Tokyo this weekend, chances are that you will spend at least part of it here!
But just in case you are not really interested in this event, there are still several other festivals taking place in other parts in and around Tokyo. Here are three alternatives for you to consider, but there are many more:
The biggest festival in Japan, the massive Sanja Matsuri officially started last evening with a series of rituals needed to prepare the shrines and omikoshi for the festival. If you are in Tokyo today you can take part in the ceremonies scheduled for this afternoon, with various parades and dancers. Personally I am stuck with work and can not go there to see it for myself so instead I am sharing these photos from last year’s Sanja Matsuri. For a matsuri maniac like myself the Sanja Matsuri is like Christmas and Birthday rolled into one magnified by a thousand! The biggest events take place over the weekend though, so even if you are stuck like me today, you can still enjoy the festival during Saturday and Sunday.
It is March 18th 628 A.D., and two fishermen, Hinokuma Hamanari and his brother Takenari are out fishing in the Sumida River when their accidentally pull up a strange statue. The village headman identifies it as a statue of the important Buddhist deity Bodhisattva Kannon. The headman took vows and devoted his life to the preaching of buddhism and even his home was remade into a buddhist temple. This is the foundation story of today’s massive Sensoji in Tokyo’s Asakusa district and the background to the equally massive Sanja Matsuri attracting millions of tourists and participants in Tokyo each May.
To commemorate the actual spot where the statue was pulled up a smaller temple was founded, the Komagatado, that exists in the same location this side, with its back towards the river, facing west. The temple has been destroyed in many fires and wars, and the structure we see today was built in 2003. Apart from the 19th of every month when the temple is open to visitors, nothing much goes on here despite it being such a historic spot. I passed a couple of times in the last couple of months and tried to get some photos worthy of showing you, but alas, I think this historic woodblock print by the master Hokusai (1760-1849) is as atmospheric as it will ever get (see the last image).
Since the history of this Sensoji and the Sanja Matsuri ties in with this little temple and the festival takes place later this month I thought now would be a good time to introduce it!
It is finally the month of May and with it the biggest annual event in Tokyo – the Sanjamatsuri (三社祭)! From May 16th to May 18th about two million people will crowd in and around the famous Sensoji temple in the Asakusa district. In fact the festival gets so massively crowded that I know many locals who refuse to visit Asakusa as long as the festival goes on. It isn’t actually that bad, and even though there are over 100 omikoshi (portable shrines) in the area they are quite spread out at times. Of course, the closer you get to the action the more crowded it gets. Opportunities to get lost or separated from friends are everywhere. I took these photos near the closing of the festival on the evening of the third day last year. Considering myself a bit of a veteran on the subject of the Sanjamatsuri, here are some pieces of advice if you want to make the most of your visit:
1. Do be aware of your surroundings. The omikoshi can turn surprisingly fast and a full set of omikoshi and carriers weigh well over a couple of tons and are notoriously difficult to control. If you get stuck between a more or less out of control omikoshi and a hard place the omikoshi will win every time, no matter how much you protest! Several accidents occur every year although usually among the participants themselves. Always consider your escape routes. Your safety is 100% your own responsibility.
2. Do eat and drink locally. Support the many businesses and people living in the area by enjoying their service. Prices do not go up during the festival and even tiny little mom and pop back alley restaurants get lively and crowded. Now is the chance to try all those little places you would normally be too shy to visit. There are also stalls just about everywhere selling hot food, cold drinks and anything in between.
3. Pick pockets. While Japan is famously safe no matter how you look at it, this sense of safety can lull you into taking unnecessary risks. While the festival itself is relatively free of pick pockets, the trains leading to stations around the festival are not. Make sure you have all your stuff!
4. Traffic. Needless to say, you will be very unlikely to find a parking spot within miles of the festival. Leave the car at home. Surprisingly many drivers are totally unaware of the festival though, and not all of the area is closed of for traffic. Again, you do not want to be smacked by a bus when you are busy avoiding being run over by an omikoshi!
5. Do explore the side streets. There is so much stuff going on and the are actually covered by the festival is so huge that even if you hate crowds you will enjoy the festive atmosphere away from the main streets. There are omikoshi spread out virtually everywhere and during lulls in the ceremonies even main streets are not much more crowded than during a Saturday afternoon in peak tourist season.
6. Getting there: The obvious choice would be to use the Asakusa station on the Ginza line, but other good stations that might be better choices are the Tawaramachi station also on Ginza line or the Kuramae Station on the Oedo line. If you come in from the north the Tsukuba express Asakusa station is also a good choice. Having strong legs and not being afraid of walking you can use the Ueno station, Iriya station or the Tokyo Skytree stations that are about a mile away.