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.
While most shrines have a dedicated omikoshi, essentially a mobile shrine actually housing the kami (or god spirit) of the shrine, many of them also have separate omikoshi for the different neighborhoods under the protection of the shrine. Naturally the honor of actually carrying the main omikoshi of the shrine is huge and so as was the case with the Shitaya Shrine Matsuri which took place last weekend, all the neighborhoods where it passed through took turns carrying it. The handover of one neighborhood to the next is the most elaborate and intense part of the ceremony and the most fun to watch. The neighborhood headman (or head woman, it changes) will take his position at the top and use a pair of hyoshigi (拍子木), two wooden blocks tied together with a rope. The blocks are banged together to make a simple and effective signal able to carry over the noise of the festival.
Together with this omikoshi there was also a horse ridden by a priest of the shrine. I don’t think I have met many horses in my life that were as cool and relaxed as this one! Nothing would phase it, even being surrounded by hundreds of cheering men!
The last day of the Shitaya Shrine (下谷神社) festival is also the biggest, when they bring out the huge main omikoshi of the shrine for a 12 hour long tour of the entire parish, including almost everything from the south of the Yamanote line train tracks from between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations in the west to Ueno station itself in the east, to the Shrine itself in the south. Along the route the huge omikoshi (that requires several times the number of carriers than the more usual smaller omikoshi) is handed over to different neighborhood teams several times. The handovers are a chance for the braves of all neighborhoods to claim a piece of the action and fighting is not unusual. In fact there are dozens of police officers following the omikoshi along with dozens more at the ready whenever the huge group of people involved in the procession hits major roads and traffic points.
I was interested to see how the omikoshi would be able to pass the narrow shopping streets of Ameya Yokocho. As I arrived the small shops were shutting down and boarding up much to the bemusements of local shoppers who had not seen the festival approaching. As the omikoshi came along an unstoppable wave of people proceeded it and basically vacuumed the street clean of anything in its path. I was lucky to stand very close to a side street but even then I was pushed several yards into the side street while trying to make sure no-one was trampled underneath!
After having been pushed out of the Yokocho I went around the back streets to the foot bridges connecting Okachimachi with the Ueno station to get a great view of the mayhem. It was especially interesting to see the way the police maneuvered, in groups with banners and bullhorns. In such large numbers radios become useless and when visibility is no farther than what your arm can reach you need tall banners to direct you troops around. It looked more like a medieval battle than a modern festival! All in all, great fun!
This year’s annual Shitaya Jinja Matsuri in Tokyo’s Ueno district takes place on May the 9th, 10th and 11th! The peak is today so if you are in town I can really recommend this fun festival. It marks the first of the big “downtown” festivals of the year in central Tokyo and it is usually a favorite of hotel staff and tourists information bureaus all over Tokyo. Easy to find and a great festival to to visit both for festival veterans and for tourists.
I took these photos on the evening of the second day, when the omikoshi of the various neighborhoods in the “parish” take turns coming up in front of the main shrine building. There were quite a few of them although they are all supposed to finish before dark the processions carried on long after the sun had set. These omikoshi are smaller, but the massive shrine omikoshi is due out on the streets today. It will be preceded by shrine officials and more musicians.
Last night was warm but very windy here in Tokyo, ideal for a tour of duty underneath an omikoshi!