Tokyobling's Blog

Stopping the Omikoshi – Sanja Matsuri

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on May 25, 2015

The most famous aspect of Japan’s many festivals are without a doubt the gloriously decorated Omikoshi, the portable shrines that house the gods and get taken out for a spin around the parish during festival days. The often weigh as much as a ton and are often shouldered by a couple of dozen of the strongest and most enthusiastic people belonging to the shrine or neighborhood it represents so you can imagine that stopping one of these one it gets started can be a tricky business. A round around the neighborhood means plenty of stops and starts, and during the famous Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo’s Asakusa district one of the most important stops of them all is in front of the grand Kaminari gate! I happened to be just in front of the three headsmen of the omikoshi, as they stood on top the uma, the wooden posts where the omikoshi rests temporarily after stopping. Their job is to guide the omikoshi into the right position for the stop, and to signal the carriers to correct their course, speed up, slow down, revers or turn. Nobody much listens so it is the job of several lieutenants on the sides to steer and guide the omikoshi as it approaches the uma and the headsman. As I stood waiting the omikoshi made three attempts to approach the uma, twice coming up too far to the left or to the right and once nearly ramming the uma and the three headsmen, forcing them to hang on for dear life. As the omikoshi finally made it onto the uma the three headsmen were pulled backwards by assistants just in time to avoid falling or being squashed. At this point the headsmen usually stops to give a speech or accept a blessing from the local priests, but this being the Sanja matsuri and there being hundreds of omikoshi they barely had time to catch their breath before being ordered to go up and turn around again.

Watching all this is great is great fun but obviously there a is serious risk of injury if you get too close, and I took most of these photos without even looking at the omikoshi, being far more interested in checking that my back was free to escape if anything should come crashing towards me! I have never had to bolt so far but sooner or later!

Sanja Matsuri might be famous for its enthusiastic omikoshi crews, but this is still nothing compared to some festivals in Osaka where errant omikoshi has been known to literally go through house walls and cause irreparable damage to parked cars alone the procession route. Accidents happen almost every year, so be careful out there!

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