If you are in Tokyo mid-July you could do worse than to visit the massive Mitama matsuri at Tokyo’s famous Yasukuni shrine July 13th to 16th. The Mitama matsuri is most easily explained as a Shinto All Hallows Eve, where the souls of the dead are revered in special ceremonies all over the country. Some shrines though make a bigger event of it, especially those that have been consecrated to enshrine a large number of souls, like the Yasukuni Shrine. The festival is a grand mix of the mitama ceremonies, gorgeous lit lanterns, war remembrance, festival food and drink, traditional performances of everything from taiko drummers to local festivals from far away prefectures.
About 300 000 typically visit during the festival so it is easily one of the most crowded events in Tokyo. There are also opportunities to visit the Yasukuni museum, see the Zero fighter on display and even try some Curry flavored soda, Imperial Navy style!
Getting to Yasukuni is easy since it is conveniently located in the heart of Tokyo. Kudanshita station is the closest, but you can also use Iidabashi (if you prefer JR) or Ichigaya stations (slightly longer to walk).
More photos of the fabulous archers I saw at the Kyudo ceremony at Yasukuni shrine in the first few days of this year. January was bitterly cold but these steady hands never failed to hit the targets in this form of traditional archery called kyudo or often zen archery in the west. You can read more about the ceremony in my earlier post on the subject here. Enjoy!
A few days ago, while I was busy with other less important things the sakura season was officially declared open here in Tokyo after the tree in Yasukuni shrine started blooming. The week saw great weather and the first hints of summer humidity. On Sunday morning however it was like a typhoon had hit us. Rain, winds, thunder and lightning. Most of the events I had planned got canceled due to the bad weather so instead I headed over to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward to see how the poor old cherry blossoms were doing. I didn’t get far until a sudden wind burst turned my umbrella into a spiky knot of confetti! At the shrine where the food stalls were all geared up the rain had driven most visitors away. All the trees were in full bloom however and I think the peak should come today, Monday. From Tuesday the blooming will start to recede and we might get one more weekend of flower viewing here in Tokyo if the weather holds. Today seems to be promising a beautiful day.
As I passed the main gate of the Yasukuni shrine I saw a group of very elderly gentlemen having their portrait taken. I think they were a war veteran group, survivors of Guadalcanal here to pay their respects to their fallen comrades.
Last weekend while visiting Yasukuni shrine to see the sakura trees I also spent a while watching the semi-annual iaido performance at the Kagura stage in the shrine grounds. There were iaidoka, practitioners of iaido, of both sexes, from young to old and including at least one foreigner. Iaido is a highly philosophical sport focused on the quick drawing of the sword, a resolute attack and a smooth withdrawal. Because it involves actual weaponry there is not competition aspect to it. There are three kinds of swords, a wooden boken that is used for kata (or set movements) with more than one person, iaito which is a blunt metal sword and a shinken, which is a sharpened sword. There are also kata for more than one swords, extra long swords and sneakier “stealth” kata that involves hidden daggers.
Originally iaido was a real practice for real combat situations but these days it is more like a very fluid form of zen meditation, similar to zen archery, kyudo, and not even remotely similar to the combat sports like kendo or naginata. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become reasonably good at iaido. There is something comforting about a sport where the best practitioners are also usually the oldest!
Despite this performance being free for anyone to watch it is not very well advertised apart from a line or two on a sub-page of the ever elegant and modest Yasukuni shrine official website.