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.
Not having a dog myself I am always amazed by how difficult dogs are to photograph. Cats, humans, monkeys, even foxes, are comparatively easy. They will look at anyone getting their attention whereas dogs will only focus on their owner. I stopped a man out walking his cute little dog at the Sanja Matsuri, the huge festival in Asakusa, as I had to get some photos of the great little festival gear. As much as the owner tried the dog just would not look anywhere else. Well, at least the old saying “man’s best friend” is true. If I ever get lonely I will get a dog, and dress him up like this!
There’s festivals, and then there’s The Festival with a capital F, the biggest and happiest traditional festival in Japan is the massive Sanja Matsuri held in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district every year. Millions of people and tens of thousands of omikoshi carriers make this the place to be if you are into festivals. I was going over this year’s Sanja Matsuri photos when I found these that illustrate well the “scrum” of the omikoshi, how people are jostling, arguing, joking and teasing their way into the omikoshi with sometimes several hundred members per omikoshi (portable shrine)! Quite different from more local festivals in smaller villages and cities where there’s usually just enough people to get by. And there’s not one of these omikoshi, there’s hundreds of them parading around. It’s easy to get lost in taking photos and ending up cornered between to buildings in the middle of the scrum unable to get out. I saw this parade of omikoshi headed by musicians and after them a mostly female omikoshi with some lovely looking ladies! Look at the last few photos to get an idea of the amount of people, and then imagine the whole city looking like this, several blocks in every direction! Sanja Matsuri is so big I have several friends who refuse to go there because of the crowds, but I don’t mind. Can’t wait for next year’s Sanja festival!
It’s not very new anymore but I still make a point to go up to the top floor every time I pass, the new tourist information building in front of Asakusa’s famous Kaminarimon, the entrance gate to the huge Sensoji temple. I took these photos at the Sanja festival earlier this month, just as the dozens of omikoshi, portable shrines, leave the temple through the main street and spill out on the big scramble street crossing. It was fun to see it all from above, as I have been down there in the middle of it all many times, trying not to get trampled by the rickshaw pullers, the busses, the police cars and the omikoshi! I think it was the first time I ever saw an omikoshi from above like this.