Festival Frenzy – Asakusa Sanja

Of course I knew that when I came to Japan I wasn’t really going to see yakuza and geisha walking around the streets. But then again, maybe I was. At the Sanja Matsuri, one of the big three Tokyo festivals, that is exactly what you get to see: the exotic, normally hidden geisha of Asakusa, and the biggest, scariest, most heavily tattooed yakuza stripped naked, tattoos in full view, not to mention all the fun, color and excitement of traditional Tokyo gone mad at festival time.

Sanja Matsuri is a fabulous extravaganza of boisterous and wild festival revelry over three days of drinking, dancing and debauchery. In the area of Tokyo with the most real old Edo flavor – the downtown (shitamachi) Asakusa area – it pulls in one and a half million people over the three days of the festival.

In sharp contrast to everyday life, normal rules are suspended at festival time, and anything goes. If you had the Japanese down as conservative, think again. At festival time, everything goes into reverse: serious is fun, sober is drunken, and normal reticence no longer applies.

In particular, Sanja has become known as one of the festivals in which yakuza – the Japanese mafia – take part. You can see them stripped off, displaying their heavily tattooed bodies to the crowds, as they balance themselves precariously on top of the swaying mikoshi, or portable shrine – shouting encouragement to the mikoshi bearers below.

The whole thing started around thirteen centuries ago in honor of three fishermen who caught a statue of Kannon in their nets. The statue is now enshrined in the Asakusa Sensoji Temple, and on the last day of the festival, the three biggest mikoshi do the circuit in honor of these three men.

On Friday, the festival kicks off with a grand and colorful procession (daigyoretsu) with floats carrying musicians (flautists and drummers) paraded along Yanagi-dori to Asakusa Shrine. They’re surrounded by a mass of people in traditional costumes, from the towns’ headmen in hats and hakama, to white heron dancers, to the gorgeous festival finery of the Asakusa geisha.

And in the evening, the festival really gets going as the first six mikoshi portable shrines, from the most central neighbourhoods, are sent weaving recklessly through the streets, swaying on the sweaty shoulders of several dozen barely sober men. The chanting and excitement of the crowd, interspersed with the throb of the drums and the high wailing of festival flutes, is an overwhelming experience.

On Saturday, excitement and neighbourhood pride mount as the mikoshi from all 44 of Asakusa’s neighbourhood are brought to the Asakusa shrine before being carried off in different directions to do a tour of their own districts. And Sunday is the grand finale as Asakusa shrine’s three great mikoshi – each weighing a ton – and representing the three original fishermen who found the Kannon statue, are brought out from 6 am to jostle and sway around the streets along with the others until late evening.

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One definite highlight of the festival is a chance to see a performance of the Asakusa geisha, one of Tokyo’s oldest geisha communities (on Saturday and Sunday from 1 – 3 at the Asakusa Kemban geisha office: the 5,000 yen tickets which include lunch box and tea can be bought on the day). There are few chances to see the grace and beauty of Tokyo’s geisha performing for a public audience, and this event also includes other kinds of traditional variety acts.

Another highlight is the chance to see the incredible energy that goes into a half-hour performance of traditional taiko drumming from Nihon Taiko Dojo, a famous Asakusa-based drumming group. They will perform at the shrine on Saturday after the last mikoshi leaves the shrine grounds at around 3 pm.

Many of the mikoshi carriers are local shop owners and tradespeople. Takao Iida, a rice cracker shop employee, is one of these. “The gods come down and go inside the portable shrine and we tour them around our local neighbourhood to show it to them,” he says. The wilder the ride and the rougher the mikoshi shakes the more it is said to bring good luck.

The mikoshi are elaborate black lacquered wooden constructions, built – literally – as miniature versions of real shrines. In a secret ceremony before the shrines are sent out, the little doors in the shrines are opened, carefully veiled by a cotton curtain from the eyes of the public, and the elder townsmen invite the gods into the shrine. The golden bird on top of each shrine is the mythical bird that the gods ride. It is real gold leaf, as is the gold painted on the shrines, and each mikoshi sets the town back by about 40 million yen, so dropping it is not a viable option.

The mikoshi are carried on four long poles lashed together with ropes, and each shrine needs 20 people in front and 20 in back to carry it at any one time. With the support teams to change over, that means around five hundred people in total to carry it throughout the day. The mikoshi carriers are all dressed in short hanten festival coats, a different design to distinguish each town. Friends and relatives are pulled in from all over to help at festival time. “You leave everyday life. It’s not that you can do anything at all that you like, but you get away with a lot. We drink from midday onwards,” says Iida, who only snatches a couple of hours of sleep during the whole festival.

Traditionally, mikoshi carrying was an activity for men only, as the combination of wild abandon and drinking at festival time means that things often erupt into violence, but women are making inroads and in some towns four out of ten mikoshi carriers are women. Tatsuya Okabe, the leader of one of drum groups, said “Everyone wants to carry the mikoshi so in the jostling to get into place, it is inevitable that some people get into fights.” The flares of temper are usually short-lived, though, and above all, in group-orientated Japan, carrying the mikoshi fosters community identity. As Iida says, “There is a real feeling of satisfaction because we are all in it together. You naturally develop a good group feeling because it’s for the gods.”

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Although spectators can’t join in carrying the mikoshi without having the official hanten jacket, there are also miniature mikoshi for the kids, and apparently, if any foreign kids are keen to carry the mikoshi (or hold on to the ropes pulling it, for the littler ones) there is a good chance that they will be invited to join in.

The people you will see standing on the mikoshi directing them are the kashira, traditionally workers in construction related industries, and often the laymen who help to keep the shrine maintained. Their job is to direct the mikoshi’s progression by waving directions. Traditionally, in Japanese festivals, unsteered mikoshi would often “inadvertently” crash into the houses or shops of people, and these shops were more often than not those belonging to people who had got on the wrong side of the community in some way, in a kind of group law that became no-one’s fault. Injustices, in other words, were set right at festival time. At Asakusa it is the kashira’s job to prevent such damage to shops by keeping the mikoshi on track, especially in the narrow shop-lined Nakamise Dori, leading to the temple.

Normally, no-one should ride on top of the mikoshi, but in Asakusa, somehow the tradition started of not just the kashira, but also of others standing on top of it as it sways along. In the heat of the throngs clothes often get discarded, and it the people with tattoos over their whole bodies suddenly stand out. The neighbourhood you are most likely to see this in is Nishi Asakusa, an area known as the base of the T-gumi yakuza. The town’s hanten jackets display the character for gold inside a circle mark on their backs. Festival participants are quick to note, though, that not all tattooed characters are yakuza; among the five hundred people supporting the mikoshi, many come from other towns and have traveled to Tokyo specially to experience the legendary Sanja festival from the inside. Some tattooed characters are tradespeople, such as sushi chefs, and some just like tattoos.

One ex T-gumi member, who used to stand on the mikoshi when he was younger, said “Actually, it doesn’t feel that great. You are shaken about so much, you feel sick. To be honest, by the time I got all the way down Nakamise-dori, I had to get off and sit down for a while.” So why do they do it? “You get to yell in a loud voice and carry on…it’s just the spirit of the festival, and a kind of momentum that makes you do it,” he says.

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The act of standing on the mikoshi, however, has religious implications, and it has caused quite a rift in the community. The mikoshi is a shrine – albeit a temporary one – and the gods reside inside it. “To stand on the mikoshi is disrespectful to the god in any capacity,” said Kenji Yoshikawa, the owner of a religious artifacts shop in Asakusa, “but to stand on it in shoes is even worse.” While the kashira – the laymen of the shrine – are largely forgiven for riding the mikoshi, most people are deeply unhappy at others doing so.

The police, of course, are in charge of getting the transgressors off the mikoshi. But traditionally, the police in Japan have had a rather difficult time at festivals, especially local police, whose sympathies could potentially be more with the revellers than with applying the strict letter of the law. Perhaps it can seem a little harsh to arrest merry-makers at festival time, when the normal restraints of everyday life aren’t supposed to apply. For this reason, it is said, large numbers of police reinforcements are often brought in from other areas at festival time.

Last year, for the first time, representatives of each neighbourhood gathered together to set seal to a contract stating in black and white that they would agree to forbid people standing on top of the mikoshi or taking off their hantens. How successful this will be has yet to be seen, but as they work to get the new rule enforced, and others try to experience the ride of their life on top of the mikoshi, there could be some extra excitement in store this year.

Note:

To get your very own festival gear try Asakusa Nakaya, in Metrodori, the street to the right of the main Nakamise-dori as you face the temple. My personal pick is the close-fitting long-sleeved cotton sweatshirts with tattoo markings all over so you can get the yakuza look – temporarily – without having to be one. For the full festival kit, a festival hanten jacket starts at 2,500 yen, an obi belt to tie it is from 800 yen, black cotton momohiki pants are from 1,200 yen, tabi split-toed shoes from 980 yen, and a hachimaki bandanna will set you back 600 yen.

And don’t forget to visit Sukeroku – one of the most unusual of Asakusa’s unique shops (second last shop on the right of Nakamise-dori as you face the temple). It is stocked with the most amazing miniatures of every thing you could possibly imagine, and many more that you couldn’t, including little geisha, little white heron dancers, miniature mikoshi, and everything you have seen at the festival and might want to take home.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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