The festival at the Senzoku Inari Shrine in the northern parts of Tokyo’s Asakusa district was a first for me, a very small festival which was unusually completely without much of what you expect from a traditional festival, the market stands, the food, the drinks. I didn’t see any of that at this festival. I arrived just as the omikoshi and procession was nearing the end of their journey, right in front of the shrine. I was probably the only non-local there to watch! The last weekend of May is full of events all over Tokyo, so there is a rather stiff competition to gather visitors for any of them.
The Senzoku district is quite small, and only parts of it were traditionally residential. In the old days half of what is now Senzoku was part of the famous Yoshiwara red light district, which has long since disappeared. After the war the place was the home of many ethnic Koreans and had a rather lively Korean market, but for the last 50-60 years it has been a very typical downtown Tokyo neighborhood.
The shrine itself is most famous for being the setting of the famous novel Takekurabe, written by Higuchi Ichuyo in 1895-1896, about local children growing up on the edge of the Yoshiwara red light district. In the novel, the children play in and around the shrine and a few years ago a bust in the honor of Higuchi was unveiled on the shrine grounds. You might recognize her as the face of the 5000 yen note, only the third woman to be featured on a Japanese bank note.
This weekend I visited the festivals in Asakusabashi, right next to the Sumida river and south of Asakusa. Starting on Friday evening, the festival runs until Sunday evening and involves three local shrines, taking part together: the Suga Shrine, the Dairoku Tensakaki Shrine and the Ichogaoka Hachiman Shrine. I followed one of the omikoshi, the portable shrines used in these festivals around the Ichogaoka Hachiman Shrine (銀杏岡八幡神社). The main events of this festival takes place today on Sunday, so if you are in Tokyo and want to see a festival I recommend visiting Asakusabashi!
I took these photos of the traditional Noh performance at the Shitaya shrine in downtown Ueno/Shitaya. When I first came to Japan the slow and rather formal Noh theatre didn’t hold much interest for me, I was much more interested in the livelier and folksier plebeian festivals, the omikoshi, the Awaodori dancer for example. It wasn’t until I started looking closely at the acting in the tiny kagura stages on local shrine festivals that I fell in love with Noh. The acting, the movements and the music is absolutely sublime. This is storytelling of the highest order, nothing is explained, nothing is expected of the viewer and the audience is allowed to fill in the details for themselves as there is no dialogue nor any subtitles like you’ll find in some western Opera. There are many dozens of stories and roles but the most common ones are performed hundreds of times in Tokyo festivals alone. Although you are fully aware that the actors are wearing masks and that it is all make believe, the way that the tiniest movements interact with the music and the costumes makes it all look fantastically real. It doesn’t take any effort at all to just let your mind relax, just a tiny suspension of disbelief, and the story comes alive like nothing else.
I liken it to interactive 3D images, you know the images where if you stare long enough eventually you’ll see something different. Not everyone gets it at first. It took me years. But now I get Noh. And I love it.
Sometime during the last days of May and the first days of June a number of shrines and temples around Asuksabashi station throws a big joint festival with omikoshi, kagura dancing, hayashi and processions. All the shrines are relatively tiny and the area of Asakusabashi has turned from a residential merchants area to a more or less modern district famous for its wholesellers and craftsmen. Together however they manage to put on quite a good show. The festivals here are also relatively unknown and usually never appears on any tourist guides so visiting these is a good chance to see the truly local festivals almost empty of tourists and photographers! I took these photos during last year’s festivals at various shrines, but most of these photos are from the Ichogaokahachimanjinja (銀杏岡八幡神社) and the Dairoku Tensakaki Shrine (第六天榊神社).