The Grand Kanda Myojin, the Greatest of all shrines in Tokyo is actually a conglomerate of several smaller shrines surrounding it. One of these shrines is the original Edo Shrine, and naturally their omikoshi (portable shrine) that carries the shrine gods is one of the biggest and most splendid in the capital. At the Kanda Matsuri it is taken out once every two years and as it enters the shrine precinct for the last time on the last evening, three men ride it in order to guide it properly to the priests waiting. The entrance of this omikoshi into the shrine is maybe the most eagerly awaited points of the festival, as over 200 locals guide carry it forward, not all at the same time, but naturally everyone wants to take part in this honorable endeavor so there is a lot of jostling to get the coveted places under the omikoshi!
As I watched several people around me were arguing whether one, two or maybe all three of them would fall of this year, as sometimes happen – the ride is everything but smooth! But one woman in the audience near us quieted everyone with a sharp “Hush you fools – no one is falling off this year!” And as you can see it turned out she was completely correct.
Being underneath even a small omikoshi is terrifying, but this one is huge! I can only imagine how scary it must be to be on top! Most of this omikoshi was made in Tokyo in 1958, but some parts have come all the way from Osaka. Both workshops are the most prestigious omikoshi makers in the country.
One of the most powerful symbols of the great Kanda Matsuri that took place last month at one of Tokyo’s great shrines, the Kanda Myojin, is the entrance of the two Shishigashira, lion heads, into the shrine itself. One male, and one female, their role is to protect the processions of the shrine festival, and when they finally enter the shrine on the last night they are carried on wooden beams by an all female team. Accompanying them are a set of large traditional drums played by young girls, in a very unusual and ominous style of rhythm. It sounds like nothing else I have heard at a Japanese festival. Since this year’s festival was the 400th, the shrine was crowded beyond capacity. The police and the shrine guards could impossible contain the crowds so the women had to really battle their way to the front of the shrine and receive the final blessing from the head priest. The large golden heads looked amazing!
The original shrine Shishigashira were both destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake in the 1920s, and these were recreated from photos and drawings in 1983.
I spent yesterday in Fuji City, in Shizuoka Prefecture which is two prefectures over west from Tokyo, visiting the lovely and colorful Yoshiwara Gionsai, famous for its many dashi (mobile festival platforms). The festival was as great as ever, despite the tiny bit of rain that fell at the end of the festival. You would be excused for not believing that we were actually in the middle of the rain period here in Japan, but so far there has not been very much of it.
The main attraction of the Yoshiwara Gion Festival is the main street in Yoshiwara Honcho, where the different dashi are pulled up and down the streets by the members of the neighborhood they represent. The dashi are manned by kids and adults who play the more or less traditional music of these festival. When I say more or less I mean that Shizuoka is famous for being slightly more innovative in the music and rhythm sections of their festivals and the kids have quite a bit of freedom in deciding how they are going to perform. Most opt for the traditional way but there are a few far away influences to some of teams drumming or dancing!
Once a year the little town of Yugawara on the western edge of Kanagawa Prefecture throws a huge onsen festival, celebrating the natural springs of hot water that dot the area with a very wet and very chaotic festival. Townspeople and tourists line the streets with huge buckets of hot water (hence the name, yukakematsuri) and douse the passing omikoshi (made up in the form of traditional onsen style buckets) and their carriers with as much as water as they can. One of the omikoshi were shouldered completely by local young women and naturally they bore the brunt of the hot water assaults! The parade route is a few kilometers long and the streets are lined with everything from adults with water buckets to little kids with water pistols and even local fire departments with industrial sized pumps and fire hoses! More photos and more stories from this fantastic (and rather obscure) little festival to come!