One of the most famous “Temple Shrines” (temples that also functioned as shrines – it is a long a complicated story about the role of Japan’s two major religions Buddhism and Shinto) in Tokyo is the Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin in Tokyo’s Moto Akasaka district (near both Nagatacho stations and the famous Akasaka Mitsuke stations). Erected as a branch office of the main Toyokawa Inari in Aichi Prefecture, it has been tremendously popular from the day it was opened in 1828 to this day. During the years after its founding, the temple shrine was moved and the buildings rearranged, one of them being one of my favorite buildings in Tokyo; the tiny Okunoin (奥の院). It looks very much like an ordinary shrine from the outside, except that it is strikingly white (which is quite unusual), but on the inside it looks like any rural temple complete with buddhist art and statues. During the Hatsumode season this year (early January) the Okunoin building was opened to the public and I got my first chance to poke around outside. I would have loved to spend more time in here but lots of people were lining up outside waiting to get in so I had to be quick with my camera.
The Tokyokawa Inari Bestuin is very popular with celebrities and if you have a chance it is a great spot to go for the New Year’s celebrations, from about half an hour before midnight on the 31st to the Coming of Age day in early January.
I hadn’t been to many bonodori festivals this summer so I was happy to find one scheduled for the final night of the large Hikawa Shrine festival in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. The bonodori is a rather complicated dance with music that makes it sound very like Sunday matinee movie from the late 1940s. It takes place around a raised podium where a taiko drummer helps keep the rhythm and it is usually performed in the traditional summer dress of Japan, the yukata (think kimono light). In a land with many dances and tradition thousands of years old it is good to see that new traditions are still slowly being grown, like this kind of dance. I imagine people in 1000 years will be dancing this to the exact same music and with the same movements as we do today.
As many bonodori festivals I have been to, this must surely be the most perfect. The space is not too large, not too small, and above all, it takes place under the trees! The red lanterns combine with the canopy of leaves to create a once in a lifetime perfect “room” for the dance to take place. I might be the only one to notice, but such perfection leaves me in tears these days. When I imagine the ideal bonodori location, this was it. I just didn’t know it really existed. I know bonodori ranks very low on the list of exciting festivals to see or experience, even for local Japanese, but if you are into it, this is the one to visit. It usually starts on the Sunday of the festival at 1830, but music starts much earlier, usually at 17300, and the drummers are always there early to warm up.
The Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社) in Minato Ward (there are hundreds all over Japan) is easily accessible from Akasaka, Tameikesanno, Nogizaka, Roppongi or Roppongi Ichome stations.
There are a lot of festivals going on in Tokyo this weekend, the biggest probably being the one in Shibuya that I posted yesterday, but not far behind is the Hikawa Shrine Matsuri in Tokyo’s central Akasaka (not to be confused with the very similar sounding place name Asakusa). This festival kicked off on Friday evening but I didn’t have time to visit so here are a few photos from my visit to this festival back in 2012, a couple of years ago. I have been to this festival many times and it is always fun, especially to see the large dashi, the mobile shrine platforms as they are pulled and pushed and dragged all around the narrow streets and hills of Akasaka (赤坂, even the name means Red Hill). There are two different dashi and they are used on different days, so depending on when you see them you are bound to see a different one. Dashi connoisseurs (yes there are such people!) can easily tell the difference, but less learned people like me have a bit of a hard time.
A good friend that I met by chance at a festival last weekend let me in on how omikoshi (the mobile shrines carried by parishioners around the neighborhood) are judged in action! I can’t believe I hadn’t gotten this earlier, but apparently people in the know look at the four tassels hanging around the edges of most omikoshi (the ones in this festival are blueish purple): if the tassels swing wildly in rhythm, it means that the omikoshi is moving with cheer and purpose, if they hang straight or just sort of rattle around it means the carriers are running low on energy and the proper spirit. The best way to get the tassels swinging is to cheer the carriers on which usually spurs everyone into action!
If you have time and the opportunity, don’t miss this or any of the many other big festivals this weekend!
Many festivals in Japan feature the huge wheeled shrine platforms called dashi (山車) that often carry dancers and musicians. Some of these have engines, others rely on manpower and others a combination. Some are so large that they have to be lifted up and rotated because they can’t turn! On the first day of the Akasaka Hikawa Shrine festival a week ago they only had the one dashi out, but it’s a beauty. It is always so fun to see these very traditional handmade wagons being pulled around a modern city center, full of glass, concrete and neon signs. Very few people still live in these commercial districts so the omikoshi teams usually rely on staff from local companies and shops and even night clubs to help out, which makes for a friendly bunch of fun loving people, as you can see in some of these photos.
Still the festival season isn’t over, although it is drawing towards a close as the weekends see fewer and fewer festivals. Better enojy it while it lasts!