This weekend is practically shock full of festivals all over Japan, not the least all over Tokyo and nearby Yokohama! It is impossible to see even tiny part of all the festivals taking place so pick one or two and make the most of it! One of my personal favorites, and a good one for foreign tourists not used to or not very interested in hanging out with the huge crowds many festivals draw, is the comparably tiny Kuramae Matsuri, in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. The tiny shrine of Kuramae is not only so small that it flies under the radar of most festival aficionados, it also boasts what is often called the most beautiful Omikoshi in all of Edo. Granted, unless you are well studied up on the minute differences between different omikoshi, you are not likely to see much that is special, but the overall look of the omikoshi is nevertheless spectacular. You can use the tags at the end of the post to find more about this shrine, this omikoshi and this festival.
Many festivals feature taiko drummers giving performances once or twice along the festival route, when I visited the Kuramae Matsuri in 2013 I took these photos of a fairly large troupe doing their best to stay in the shadows, as the sun was fairly brutal that day. Taiko drumming is another one of the many “must see in real life” experiences that should be on the top of any tourist’s to see list when visiting Japan!
The great Tokyo Sanja Matsuri festival is a multi day event but the main days are the Saturday and the Sunday. This year the weather was not quite optimal for the Satuday which meant a little calmer a festival than usual but on Sunday the Sun was back with a vengeance and the weather as well as the festival were in excellent moods. Here are a few more snapshots, with no special meaning other than that I like them, taken around the Kaminarimon gate in front of the grand Sensoji temple in Asakusa.
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!
The great Sanja Matsuri is not the only festival taking place in Tokyo during the third weekend in May, one that is often overlooked is the comparatively tiny Onoterusaki Shrine festival in nearby Iriya. It is heaps more kid friendly and the local streets are basically taken over by kids and families having a good time. With just a couple of Omikoshi and a single tiny dashi it is a hundred times smaller than the nearby giant festival of Sanja. I took these photos of the kids in the local Hayashi team as they performed for the festival goers and the omikoshi teams. Hayashi is the name of the traditional kind of music you see and hear at festivals, always with at least drums and flutes, but sometimes other instruments or dancers are added. The kids were as great as ever! They’ll be professional by the time they grow up!