Sanja Matsuri – Day 1

We planned our trip to Japan this spring so that we would wind up in Tokyo for the third weekend in May, which is when a huge festival takes place in Asakusa. A bit of explanation first…. We refer to Tokyo as a city, but it is actually made up of many smaller cities which aggregate into Metropolitan Tokyo. Tokyo city has a population of about 14 million people, the metropolis is about 39 million. We are in the city of Taito, of which Asakusa is a district. It is an important district in the history of the city, as the city of Edo was founded on the banks of the Sumida River and Edo eventually became Tokyo.

Within Asakusa there are 44 neighborhood associations – it is a big district. The Sanja Festival celebrates the spirits of the three men who founded Sanso-ji temple. It is a huge festival – in past years over a million people would come to the area over the three days. And this year is the first post pandemic measures festival.

We figured that staying at our beloved Hotel B:Conte would put us in a great position to be part of the action, but we would have a place we could retreat to if it all became too much. We explored the area pretty thoroughly last year and felt we knew a lot of the side streets and shortcuts that would allow us to move through the area.

The festival is at its heart a religious festival, and is centred around the Asakusa shrine, which is next to the Buddhist temple Sanso-ji. You can read about Shinto here ‘Shinto‘, but for the purposes of this discussion within the shrine building there is the actual shrine object, which contains the enshrined spirit of the kami of that space. A ‘portable’ version of the shrine exists, and the kami (god) can be taken out of the sacred space in the portable shrine, which is called a mikoshi. There are three enshrined spirits at the Asakusa shrine, so three mikoshi. Each of the 44 neighbourhood associations has at least one portable shrine as well.

On Friday afternoon the neighbourhood shrines were brought out and prepared. As we wandered through the streets we would find groups of people setting up and getting ready.

The mikoshi needs to be attached to the carry poles. As you can see they are not small. There are small ones, too – children carry them.

The purple ropes will attached the shrine to the carry poles.

It was threatening rain all day, so waiting shrines were protected. This is a fairly typical side street in this area. With the SkyTree, which is across the river, looming over!

And here the carrying poles are being lashed into position. Once they are together the big heavy ropes will attached to the carrying poles. The shrines are heavy, requiring 40 to 100 people to carry them.

And it is not just a matter of carrying them. There’s a whole ‘dance’ that happens. But that is for tomorrow.

On the first day there was a procession of religious figures between shrines which we could not find! But as we wandered about looking we came across all the prep work. And the crowds were building.

Stay tuned for day two!

Author: Sharon

I like to make things. I like to travel. I like to talk about what I'm up to.

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