It is finally the month of May and with it the biggest annual event in Tokyo – the Sanjamatsuri (三社祭)! From May 16th to May 18th about two million people will crowd in and around the famous Sensoji temple in the Asakusa district. In fact the festival gets so massively crowded that I know many locals who refuse to visit Asakusa as long as the festival goes on. It isn’t actually that bad, and even though there are over 100 omikoshi (portable shrines) in the area they are quite spread out at times. Of course, the closer you get to the action the more crowded it gets. Opportunities to get lost or separated from friends are everywhere. I took these photos near the closing of the festival on the evening of the third day last year. Considering myself a bit of a veteran on the subject of the Sanjamatsuri, here are some pieces of advice if you want to make the most of your visit:
1. Do be aware of your surroundings. The omikoshi can turn surprisingly fast and a full set of omikoshi and carriers weigh well over a couple of tons and are notoriously difficult to control. If you get stuck between a more or less out of control omikoshi and a hard place the omikoshi will win every time, no matter how much you protest! Several accidents occur every year although usually among the participants themselves. Always consider your escape routes. Your safety is 100% your own responsibility.
2. Do eat and drink locally. Support the many businesses and people living in the area by enjoying their service. Prices do not go up during the festival and even tiny little mom and pop back alley restaurants get lively and crowded. Now is the chance to try all those little places you would normally be too shy to visit. There are also stalls just about everywhere selling hot food, cold drinks and anything in between.
3. Pick pockets. While Japan is famously safe no matter how you look at it, this sense of safety can lull you into taking unnecessary risks. While the festival itself is relatively free of pick pockets, the trains leading to stations around the festival are not. Make sure you have all your stuff!
4. Traffic. Needless to say, you will be very unlikely to find a parking spot within miles of the festival. Leave the car at home. Surprisingly many drivers are totally unaware of the festival though, and not all of the area is closed of for traffic. Again, you do not want to be smacked by a bus when you are busy avoiding being run over by an omikoshi!
5. Do explore the side streets. There is so much stuff going on and the are actually covered by the festival is so huge that even if you hate crowds you will enjoy the festive atmosphere away from the main streets. There are omikoshi spread out virtually everywhere and during lulls in the ceremonies even main streets are not much more crowded than during a Saturday afternoon in peak tourist season.
6. Getting there: The obvious choice would be to use the Asakusa station on the Ginza line, but other good stations that might be better choices are the Tawaramachi station also on Ginza line or the Kuramae Station on the Oedo line. If you come in from the north the Tsukuba express Asakusa station is also a good choice. Having strong legs and not being afraid of walking you can use the Ueno station, Iriya station or the Tokyo Skytree stations that are about a mile away.
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.
At the huge and glorious Sanjamatsuri in Tokyo’s Asakusa district earlier this month I took these snaps as a children’s omikoshi passed me on the street. The adults have their huge and probably pretty dangerous omikoshi or portable shrines, and some teams organize these tiny omioshi, often on wheels and pulled with ropes, for the youngest members of the community. Adults accompany the omikoshi and encourage the children to take full part, including screaming, chanting and drumming as much and as hard as they can. Since Japanese kids are much much more quiet than kids in all other countries I have visited, I think this screaming practice is good for them and their self confidence! And they sure look great in their patchwork festival outfits!