When we visited Japan in 2018 one of the highlights was a visit to the tori no ichi festival in Shinjuku. I wrote about it here. It was a big deal, but we knew that the really big event was in Asakusa.
And – the way things worked out for this trip we are staying in Asakusa, so the festival is about a 15 minute walk away.
As a refresher – Japanese businesses often have a decorative object called a Kumade, which originally looked like a rake. The tines of the rake would be decorated with auspicious symbols and the idea is that you would ‘rake in’ good fortune and prosperity. Over time the ‘rakes’ have become more and more abstract and elaborate. Some have lost the handle all together and look more like a box or a basket.
My brother Bill is with us in Tokyo right now, and last night he and I decided to walk up and scope out where the festival is to happen. Things start at the stroke of midnight on the fourth of November – we figured they’d be in prep mode as the evening wore on. We were also concerned that it might be mob scene today and we may not be able to get to the shrine itself.
The shrine was ready and not too many people were there so we could go right in.
All decorated and ready to go.
The kumade stalls are ready.
Today the food stalls were getting busy.
We knew we were in the right area because people were walking down the street with their new kumade.
Part of the ritual is to bring in the kumade for the previous year – it is to be replaced with a bigger, better and more auspicious one for the new year. On the street there is a place to put the old ones. You see here a big kumade being taken away while an attendant from the shrine waves an implement called an onusa to purify the outgoing rakes.
Two more attendants stand at the entrance to the shrine to purify those entering.
And it is getting busy.
Here’s a video of the scene in front of the shrine.
People are waiting to approach the shrine where they can ring the bell and make their prayer. At the same time a shrine official is up on a balcony area – perhaps making a blessing. In the video you can hear a voice close by – the police were managing the crowd very carefully. Although there were a lot of people it was not a press and we felt safe.
This family was having professional photos taken at the shrine – in the background you can see one of the hundreds of stalls selling the kumade.
We did buy one. We were sidling along looking at the stalls and everyone was polite enough, but there was one guy who got to chatting with us. He told us about his products and we settled on one packed with auspicious emblems. He asked me to write my name on a piece of paper and then he went away for a moment. When he came back our little kumade in a box was all decorated:
I’m very impressed at how beautifully he wrote my last name. If I’d had to write my last name in Japanese it would not look nearly so beautiful. Sadly my writing in Japanese looks just like what you would expect from some with grade two level abilities. But by the way it looks like this typed out: ストーンマン .
Part of the routine of acquiring a kumade involves a ritual exchange of good wishes for prosperity in the coming year and a ceremony involving clapping hands. I think we acquitted ourselves well.
Of course the other reason to go to a festival is for the food. The shrine itself is quite small so the food stalls spill out through the neighbourhood for blocks and blocks.
The festival equivalent of mini doughnuts are these little cakes called castella (かすてら). Lovely little sponge cakes.
And if there is an octopus, you know who will find it! There was everything you could imagine. The only thing we couldn’t find was a place to sit down! It is one of the few times it is appropriate to walk along the street, eating and drinking.
We ate the sausages and karaage chicken before we got pictures! So good!
I expect that by tonight (Friday night) the whole area will be just heaving with people. We went out for dinner tonight and there were people walking about with their new rakes, parading them down the sidewalks as they returned to their home or business, secure in the fact that they would be raking in good fortune for another year.