If I were to be asked to make a list of words I would use to describe Japan, it might come off as something a little short of shocking to see the word “traditional” in there. Japan is one of the greatest contributors of modern-day innovations; we have the pocket calculator, of which engineers—among others—are very well acquainted with; the much-beloved karaoke machine that has probably caused plenty of noise complaints in certain places; and instant noodles which has revolutionized the entire gastronomic experience of every college student that ever was since the day it hit the shelves. But, amidst the country’s modernities is a reverence for the past, take Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri for example.
The Sanja Festival, or Sanja Matsuri in Japanese, is an annual three-day-long occasion on every third weekend of May to celebrate the founding of the Asakusa Shrine. According to legends, during Empress Suiko’s 36th year of reign, two fishermen brothers, named Hinokuma Hamanari and Takenari, found a statuette caught in their net along Sumida River on March 18, 628. Curious as to what the figure was, they decided to bring it to Haji-no-Nakatomo, the head of the village. He immediately identified it to be of Buddhism’s Kannon Bodhisattva, the Goddess of Mercy, and decided to devote himself to its veneration. The brothers joined Haji-no-Nakatomo and hence came the shrine called Sanja Gongen. On the 6th year of Emperor Meiji, the shrine’s name was changed to the one that is still being used to this day: Asakusa Shrine.
Sanja Matsuri is considered to be one of Tokyo’s most popular festivals. People from inside and outside Japan come to join in on the festivities. Yearly, it amasses an estimated number of 1.8 million participants within the span of the event—and this year’s was no different.
The first day, May 18, was the Daigyoretsu or The Grand Procession. Spearheaded by a float of drummers and flautists, local officials in hakama—a form of traditional Japanese clothing—geishas, Heron-hooded dancers, and other performers paraded to the sounds of drums, flutes, and cymbals from Yanagi Street to Asakusa Temple. Upon arrival, the performers prepared for the Binzasara Dance, a traditional Japanese dance done to pray for prosperity and a bountiful harvest in the olden times.
On the second day, May 19, it was as if the temple came alive. The food stalls were busy with customers, and kabuki performances were held deeper within the Asakusa Temple proper. The time came and the parade of the portable shrines, called mikoshi, was started. With the streets closed down for the event, one hundred mikoshi shrines, some of which are specifically for women and kids, were carried out from the temple by the devotees and were paraded throughout the forty-four districts of Asakusa. Sounds of drums, flutes, and clapping wooden blocks filled the air as the devotees bobbed the shrines up and down, chanting to lift each other’s spirits higher.
The proceedings of the last day, May 20, ran true to form and played witness to a Japan you haven’t seen before. Instead of a hundred, only three—the largest—mikoshis were paraded. Despite that, it was as if the previous days were only a build-up because the energy reached its climax only on this day. There was pushing, pulling, and jostling as people vied for a chance to carry the mikoshi on their shoulders. The crowd followed along as the mikoshis made their way through the streets, resembling the roaring waves of the ocean with their constant bobbing and chanting. Heavily-tattooed people, related to the yakuza, were also in attendance.
The festival is believed to bring good fortune to the locale and to the lives of those who have attended. What with the almost-palpable state the energy has taken and the huge turn-out of the event, it’s impossible to believe that it isn’t so.
Sanja Matsuri is one of the quintessential events in Japan; if ever you’re traveling to Tokyo around the third week of May, make sure to stop by Asakusa because you wouldn’t want to miss out on this experience.