Tokyo’s Sanja Matsuri

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On the third day of the Sanja Matsuri, the three largest mikoshi (shrines) are taken from the temple early in the morning and paraded around the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. Each shrine is solid wood and weighs thousands of pounds.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This time everything was familiar: The costumes, the bruise-inducing mikoshi and the manic energy that is the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo.

The annual festival takes place in May, usually the third weekend of the month. This year’s festival began today, and runs through Sunday. It’s being held a weekend early because of “security issues,” according to the Yomiuri Shinbum. It reported that the Metropolitan Police is prepping for a Group of Seven summit scheduled for May 26-27 in Ise-Shima, and some of its focus may be directed there, not at the Sanja Festival.

President Barack Obama will be attending the summit. He will also be visiting Hiroshima, the first sitting American president to tour the city over which the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated on Aug. 6, 1945.

But back to the festival, which is a sometimes-raucous, always colorful affair that celebrates nature and includes prayers for a good harvest. Parties with friends and neighbors and a good deal of drinking enhance the atmosphere. It attracts huge crowds — estimates run to 1.8 million or more — of locals and visitors alike.

In May 2014, I was back in Japan, my fifth visit to the island nation, and I had planned my itinerary to coincide once again with the Sanja Festival. This time I wanted to see the third (and most important) day, when the three largest solid-wood mikoshi, all weighing thousands of pounds, are brought out from the Asakusa Shrine in the early morning, paraded around the community’s streets and returned to their resting places with much fanfare after dark.

I was first invited to participate in the festival when I met my host family in 1999. And by participate, I mean be dressed in the costume representative of my host family’s neighborhood so that I could help to carry a mikoshi — a portable, house-shaped shrine in which it’s believed a deity’s spirit resides — around Asakusa, one of the oldest and most historic areas of the Japanese capital.

I wrote a lengthy article titled “At Home in Japan: How a festival, two costumes and animated visits with a Japanese family forged a new friendship,” about my experience. It was the lead story in the Aug. 8, 1999 Travel section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I worked as a copy editor and slot editor.

I met my host family through a Home Visit System program run by the Japan National Tourism Organization. Sadly, the opportunity that was to provide me with such special memories no longer exists as JNTO has discontinued the program.

In 1999, I attended the first day of the festival by myself. An early afternoon parade with hundreds of participants slowly moved down Nakamise-dori, culminating at the Buddhist Asakusa Kannon temple, also known as Senso-ji, one of the most-visited sights in Tokyo. The Asakusa Shrine is part of the complex in northern Tokyo.

Many floats, some with musicians playing flutes and drums, geisha in exquisite kimonos, and troupes of dancers traversed the route. Particularly evocative were the eight women dressed to resemble swans.

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A woman dressed to look like a swan proceeds down Nakamise-dori during the opening day of the Sanja Matsuri in 1999.

The women were wearing white face powder with bright red lipstick, light blue-green trousers gathered above the ankle and white blouses. Stopping at a designated spot, each woman raised her arms above shoulder height, allowing the fluttering white wings to be fully extended. Faux straight white hair drooped down from both sides of the brim of a low-sitting white headpiece, the top of which reached skyward in the shape of a swan’s long, slender neck and head. Not only did the headpiece look uncomfortable, but it likely took many hours of practice for each woman to master balancing it while walking gracefully.

The next day I met my host family’s older daughter and she escorted me to their home, where a party with a mix of Eastern and Western guests was under way. I understood that we’d be going to watch the mikoshi being carried around the streets. But when my host mother said it was time to “get dressed,” I knew something far more interesting was about to happen.

In minutes, I found myself, Cinderella-like (but without the gown), transformed into a mikoshi-carrier. I was wearing a patterned blue-and white blouse, over which was a denim vest with a front pocket, on top of which was a matsuri-hanten, a thigh-length coat (sometimes called a happi coat) worn during festivals. In the center of the back of the coat is a symbol or crest, which indicates a community group. Somehow I squished into tight denim, capri-length pants. My host mother tied into place a hachimaki (headband) and I slipped on dark blue, split-toed tabi (foot coverings) to complete my costume.

Only people so dressed are allowed to carry the shrines. It’s also a great privilege as a gaijin (foreigner) to be included.

Once on the street, the younger daughter of my host family helped get me into position, tightly sandwiched single file among similarly dressed men and women, more than 30 of us, to carry the mikoshi. I was under the outer left side of the long railings, which meant that my right shoulder was in jeopardy. My immediate task was to pick up the rhythm of the jolting movement and sing the chant that was supposed to keep us in unison as we advanced snail-like down the block.

At this point, the mikoshi was essentially bouncing, and with every downward motion, it hit the top of each porter’s shoulder. This repeated contact left a bruise that took a week to disappear. Yes, wood hitting bone protected by only three thin layers of cotton hurts.

A patterned clap called ipponjime´— three sets of three claps in quick succession followed by a single clap — was performed as we passed permanent shrines. It was also executed when porters switched en masse, and when the shrine reached the small building where it spent the night.

I lasted only about a half-hour as a porter. When I stepped out of line, someone else quickly rushed in to take my place. We followed this shrine — more than 100 are carried around the ward — for about two hours. When the shrine was safely home, each porter was given a soft drink or beer and a sealed pouch of fish stew.

We reconvened at my host family’s house and the party resumed. I sensed I had formed a new friendship, especially after a second visit, where my hosts dressed me in a gorgeous kimono and my host mother conducted a solemn Japanese tea ceremony for me.

Fast forward to 2014. I joined my friends for the Saturday afternoon and evening festivities, less formally dressed, but wearing the all-important matsuri-hanten. I got to help carry the mikoshi — still not very skilled with the rhythm and chant — and was delighted to have this opportunity again. My host father noted proudly that the parade route this year came down his family’s street. So when we took a break from ground-level fun for more food and refreshments at home, we were able to watch and take photos from their second-floor balcony as the mikoshi passed.

Sunday dawned clear and bright. Except for the headband, I was properly in costume. My  friends were hosting their usual blend of guests, including a French freelance journalist who divides her time between Paris and Tokyo, and a group of her friends from Switzerland. I let them know that they were in for an exhilarating experience.

What probably surprised me the most was that my host mother had enough costumes for everyone and that they were large enough to fit the Swiss, several of whom were at least 6 feet tall, which is several inches taller than the average Japanese.

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An international group of shrine-carriers gets into the chant and rhythm of the Sanja Festival.

We caught up with the midsize shrine and launched enthusiastically into the festival spirit. (Earlier in the morning, I had seen a group of children carrying a smaller version. Some shrines are also ported by groups of women only.)

The Swiss group’s shoulders were probably bruised more than the other porters because their height meant the railing was hitting them first, and in some cases was not making contact at all with the shorter carriers. Nonetheless, it was obvious the Europeans were enjoying the whole vibe as much as I had in my debut 15 years earlier.

After the first round of mikoshi carrying, the Swiss, who had arrived in Japan early that morning, were spent. Their faces glowed rosy from the exertion and a touch of sunburn. Sated with the latest refreshments, they changed back into their clothing, heartily thanked our hosts, signed the guest book and departed.

The rest of us soon headed back downstairs because we could hear the drums and flutes that signaled the approach of one of the big shrines. (The other two were winding their way around  different parts of the Asakusa neighborhood.) Thick crowds were accompanying it, clogging the narrow streets with wall-to-wall people.

I was intimidated by the mikoshi’s size and the number of people needed to carry it (see photo at top of post) — at least 80 or more; mostly muscular men — so at first I declined to join in. My host family’s older daughter re-emphasized how big an honor it was to carry the largest mikoshi, and with that sort of encouragement, how could I not try?

However, I was right to be concerned. Once in place, I felt crushed beyond sardine standards and it was apparent a lot of the porters had been drinking, as is the custom. I feared that a tangle of legs and feet could have disastrous results. Simply put, I was scared I might be trampled if I got even slightly off the rhythm and tripped.

So after a few minutes, I jumped back out of line and retreated to a safer spot. My host family’s younger daughter and her 11-year-old son were braver, carrying near the front of an interior railing, but they’d had many more years of practice and participation under their belts.

Eventually, I was back on the balcony, taking photos, and chatting with the remaining guests. The father-in-law of my host family’s older daughter perked up when he heard I was a journalist — he had been an editor — and one young Japanese woman who had taught English was eager to talk about the United States.

By twilight, it was time to walk to the area of the temple where the three large shrines would return, one at a time. While the grounds are normally open to the public, only those in costume can witness this festival-ending task.

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The complex was positively radiant, with its bright red religious buildings, elevated rows of white papers lanterns and hand-held individual lanterns all illuminated.

People gathered in clusters, awaiting the first large shrine. The same rhythmic chant all porters sang earlier in the day could clearly be heard as the mikoshi approached, and with it a bit of danger.

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The back of the men’s garments show a sampling of different crests representing neighborhood groups.

By now it was dark, so ground visibility was lessened. Many of the porters had continued to consume alcohol, and were perhaps a bit unsteady or possibly drunk. And everyone was tired from the day’s physical exertion. Our chief mission was to stay out of the direct path as the mikoshi circled several times en route to the Asakusa Shrine, its home.

Keeping our distance meant I didn’t get a satisfactory photo, but our safety was more important.

Once parked, a group of men quickly began to disassemble and undress the mikoshi, starting with the seven decorative pink ropes bound around the center portion of the “house.” Officials were herding us toward the exits in anticipation of the arrival of the second large shrine and its followers, so we didn’t get to see the rest of the accoutrements removed from the mikoshi.

The next day, I walked back to Asakusa Shrine, hoping to get a photo of the three large mikoshi sitting side by side by side. Alas, it was not to be. Full-length wooden doors hid them from view.

The 2017 Sanja Matsuri is tentatively scheduled for May 19-21. It’s never too early to start planning.

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