If you are around in Tokyo or Saitama at the end of the month I recommend you visit the grand Kawagoe Haru Matsuri, the spring festival held in old Kawagoe town every year (well, for the last 24 years anyway). There’s a parade of musketmen firing real muskets (absolutely the loudest noise you will ever hear), ladder acrobatics, and traditional dances and performances by local kids, like these two young taiko drummers performing in the rain at last year’s festival. They were a huge hit with the older ladies performing a traditional dance around them! It’s great to see that the younger generations are picking up on the old traditions. These photos are from last year’s spring festival but I am sure this one will be similar (there isn’t much official information online yet, but the opening event will be held on the 29th of March and then there will be something every weekend until the beginning of May).
At Yushima Tenjin’s Umematsuri (Plum blossom festival) I got totally carried away with the fun and energy of the crowd carrying the omikoshi around the shrine and took loads of pictures. During summer I typically go to see one or two festivals every week but in the winter there are so few opportunities to see them. The festival was in honor of the plum blossoms, which indeed made a brave appearance in the cold rain, white and bright pink ones. Come summer there will probably be hundreds of kilos of plums ready for the harvest here, hopefully turned into pickled sour plums or umeshu, the super sweet plum liquor.
After having completed its rounds around the shrine, the omikoshi is carried towards the main torii, or gate. The torii of Yushima Tenjin is very special, as it is made in bronze rather than the more common wood (or even concrete). It is also the oldest bronze torii in Tokyo, dating back to 1667. How it survived World War 2 fundraising campaigns and firebombing raids I have no idea. The shrine is also popular with students hoping for admission to the university of their choice. I found one ema, or votive plaque, where some talented person had offered a prayer to get into Yokohama national university. Good luck!
Having been presented to the priests and gods at the main shrine, the omikoshi is then carried around the shrine to the stage at the back where it is hoisted one last time for the people. I was lucky and got a good spot to take photos from. As many people as possible are crammed around the omikoshi to help it get to where it is supposed to go, but as you can see all those people doesn’t make for very much accuracy in movement! The omikoshi almost rammed the director of the group but he was kept up by other supporters with a firm grip on his belt. The omikoshi which can weigh as much as a ton, is much easier to handle with fewer people, as you can see in the last few photos when the ceremony is over and the omikoshi is taken back to its resting place at the side of the shrine.
I can hardly wait for the summer festivals to start up again!
Sometimes you are just lucky here in Tokyo. On Sunday I was walking through the neighborhood of Yushima right on the edge of Bunkyo ward, next to Ueno. I wasn’t expecting to walk into a festival complete with omikoshi and men and women dressed in white hatten coats. These festivals are very rare in the winter, especially in February and March but it seems that the flowering of the plum trees are a big deal here at the famous Yushima Tenjin shrine. The weather was quite bad, with a cold rain and a massive overcast sky. It was colder than usual even for the season but the locals did a good job in carrying their omikoshi around the streets bordering the shrine.
The area of Yushima is one of the oldest in Tokyo. In the old days you could see the sea from the high ground of Yushima, and arriving on boats it looked like a small island which explains part of its name, shima (island). Today the area is part of Bunkyo Ward but between 1887 and 1947 it was the center of the old Hongo Ward, when Tokyo was still known as Tokyo City (東京市) unlike today’s official designation as Tokyo Metropolis (東京都) and consisted of 35 wards compared to today’s 23 special wards.
I’ll post more photos of this rare early March festival, so stay tuned!
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.