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!
When I started this blog it was always my ambition to tell a story with the photos. I soon realized that photos alone was not enough and that I needed a story to go with them, but I can’t write and I wanted only the simplest stories. Some stories are almost impossible complicated though. This blog post has been sitting on my to do list since May this year. I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it. Here goes. I’ll give it a try. It is extremely simplified.
In the very long ago mythical past of Japan, the people thought that there were many Gods in the lands. The ice-age myths were alive and well. They told stories of animals, springs, rocks, mountains, clouds and skies being inhabited by a kami, a God. Humans were Gods in the making as well and these Gods could never be killed, they stayed around at family altars and watched over their descendants gathered around the hearths and homes. There was no need to build temples since everywhere was already inhabited by a kami. In the 7th century the cool new thing, buddhism came over from China and they started building nice temples that filled up with rich offerings and gathered monks and nuns around them. The priests who communicated with the kami were miffed, and so to stay competitive they started building shrines of their own, honoring the most important or strongest of the kami. Japan would be very lucky to have two peaceful non-competitive religions coexisting in quite a bit of harmony. The kami enshrined in these buildings sometimes grew bored and needed to be taken out for a bit, and so the festivals you still see today, with the portable shrines, the omikoshi, were born. To spread the benign influence of the kami around, the shrines started erecting Otabisho, which are in essence mini-shrine motels, places where the kami in the omikoshi can rest for a little while or even spend the night as they travel around the parish. These Otabisho were built in specially significant locations, sometimes within the shrine precincts, sometimes just outside, sometimes even an hours walk away. Since the kami now inhabited these otabisho they were considered extraordinarily holy and lay people were forbidden to enter while the kami was there. Armed guards with sharpened swords would be placed outside to protect the kami while they rested. Today, many hundreds of years later, a few very old shrines still preserve this tradition, one of them being the Okunitama Shrine (大國魂神社) in Tokyo’s western Fuchu City. The first photo shows one of these modern day warriors in front of the Otabisho, holding up his sword, luckily it was not necessary to unsheathe it that night. He is accompanied by city elders, friends, Boy Scouts and curious locals of all ages. Inside the kami of the Okunitama shrine rests safely. Traditionally you are not supposed to see the inside of the Otabisho but I think the residents of the apartment building right next to it can get a pretty good view of the Otabisho enclosure just by opening their front doors!
There is one more complicated and interesting ritual taking place at this spot on the same night, the Lucky Arrow. In a procession from the main shrine to the Otabisho the head priest rides a black horse and shoots an arrow at a target presented by a lower ranking priest or assistant. Hitting the target means that the kami are in favor of the city and will protect them during the coming year. To be on the safe side the mounted priest is very close to the target and shoots as many little arrows as necessary, although the first one rarely misses. Now, the really interesting and absolutely terrifying aspect of this ritual is that the people of Fuchu, which happens to be the home of a horse race track a few kilometers away, believe that possessing the arrow shot by the head priest in front of the kami while mounted on a live horse, is going to bring them extremely good luck in betting on the horses. For horse racing fans there is no stronger talisman in the entire country so a few of them (only the burliest needs to bother) will show up to try and catch the arrow as it bounces of the target, usually in mid-air, usually within the kicking distance of a very proud horse! I consider myself fairly used to horses and if it is one thing I always remember it is to never walk behind a horse within kicking distance. These men however seemed absolutely fearless as their quest for the lucky arrow almost ended in a big brawl. It was actually quite scary and I had a very hard time concentrating on taking photos, hence the poor documentation of this interesting folk custom of Fuchu City!
These rituals take place during the Kurayami festival, which is a night festival that used to take place under the cover of darkness. When Japan opened up to foreigners in the late 1860′s however, they were so embarrassed about this festival that would be sure to shock the sensible western missionaries and traders to their very bones, so they quickly changed it to a daytime and early evening festival. Fuchu is still a very dark city after nightfall though, and the photos I took actually looks brighter (thank the kami for modern technology!) than it was in real life, hence the dark blurry and grainy shots. If I am lucky and get a chance to see this again I will be better prepared to take better photos!
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!