Search This Blog

Monday, June 25, 2018

Exploring Japan, Vol 3: Sanja Matsuri at Asakusa Temple

Okay, let’s switch gears here.  We started out with a shrine to a water monster, then went to a shrine with a 1,200 year old flame.  This week we’re going to party, but we’re going to do it like no party you’ve likely ever been to before, because Asakusa Shrine is host to one of the biggest Shinto festivals in Japan.  In fact, it’s estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million visitors attend it every year. 

It’s called Sanja Matsuri (“Three Shrine Festival”) and we’ve made it a point to be there two years in a row.  It’s three days long and is in honor of three men.  Two were fishermen and one day, they caught a Buddhist statuette in their nets.  A third man heard about it and when he spoke to the brothers about what they caught, they converted from Shinto and dedicated their lives to Buddhism.  All three went on to become highly regarded and so they are celebrated each year.

In last week’s post, I mentioned that the Japanese tend to blend both Buddhism and Shinto together and this festival is a perfect example of that.  The main temple that the festival occupies is Buddhist and named Senso-Ji , however the festival itself is Shinto in nature.  It revolves around three mikoshi that make their appearance on the final day.  A mikoshi is a portable Shinto shrine that is built to house a spirit or diety.  It’s generally used to house the spirit while it’s moved from one location to another, like from a main temple to a temporary location and back again. 

For the Sanja Matsuri though, the three spirits are put into the mikoshi by a Shinto priest and then given a grand parade around Asakusa!  The mikoshi are carried through the streets while huge crowds follow. 

It actually all starts on Friday with a gigantic parade.  It features dancers, musicians, performers and city officials.  Later that evening six smaller mikoshi representing the central neighborhoods in Asakusa begin their trek around the city.  It takes anywhere from 12 – 15 people to carry one of these and they carry them for blocks, bouncing, and chanting along the way.  This is a small taste of what’s to come.

The following day, over 100 mikoshi from all 44 districts of Asakusa are paraded around the area, again each carried by 12 – 15 people. 

The picture above is of a small mikoshi that's actually pulled by children.  This was the atmosphere the day we stumbled on the festival.  We’d taken a bus tour of major sites and it had been informative but overall underwhelming. Our tour was supposed to allow us to visit the temple itself but the festival was so huge that our guide recommended everyone just rush up, look and come back to the bus.

Instead, we told our tour guide, “Just leave us.  We’ll find our own way back.”

For the record, we highly recommend ditching tours if you see something really cool.  It will almost always result in a great story at the very least.  That day was no exception.  We had basically crashed a gigantic party and had no idea what we were seeing.  As we joined in, locals were more than happy to help us understand what was going on. 

We learned how to get our fortunes by shaking numbered sticks out of a container and then pulling the paper fortune from the correct drawer.

We also learned that when you get a bad fortune, you tie it to the rack nearby so that you can leave it behind you.  For the record, my fortune actually told me to "go back to your homeland".  I tied mine to the rack and ignored the advice.  

We followed the mikoshi around and were just awed and overwhelmed by the amount of people who all seemed to be having a genuinely great time.  It left a huge impression!

That's why this year, we made it a point to be here on the last day.  The final day of the festival, the three main mikoshi housing the spirits of the men being celebrated are paraded through the streets.   They are decorated with gold sculptures and cost in the neighborhood of $400,000 each.  They also each weigh around a ton and it takes 40 people to carry one. Once they've made their way completely through the streets, they're brought back to the temple and the spirits are transferred back to their usual homes.

Yes, that's a cat in a kimono being pulled along on a skateboard.  I can't tell you how awesome the people watching is at this festival!

We also encountered a number of people who started up conversations in English, asking whether we had come specifically for Sanja Matsuri or if we had just stumbled on it.  When we told them we'd planned our trip around the party, they were very enthusiastic and excited.  In other words, we made a lot of new friends and that's the best part about travel.

There are tons of food stalls, kids games, and sights to see.  There’s also lots of Taiko drumming and music, plus generally everyone is in a great mood.  It’s a big party after all!

Crab on a stick anyone?  They offered three sauces and I can vouch for the spicy one.  It was fantastic!

How about the Japanese version of the kids rubber duck/fishing game?  Whatever you scoop into the bowl, you get to keep.

If you don't want the crab, noodles, omelets or fries/chips, there are plenty of sweets around, including chocolate covered bananas, cookies, sugary drinks and even ice cream.

And don't pass up the chance to try to catch a goldfish on a piece of rice paper.  It's a traditional game that's much harder than it looks.

Another thing of interest to anyone who is on the fence about going is that at this festival, Yakuza members are very open about showing their tattoos.  So if you have even a remote curiosity about what someone in the Yakuza may actually look like, here’s your chance to see them without being on their bad side.

If you’d like to attend yourself, the festival takes place the third weekend of May each year and it’s within a few hundred feet of the Asakusa subway stop.  

Seriously, if you ever get the chance, don’t miss it!

No comments: