Wednesday, June 8, 2011
AWOL: Sanja Matsuri Festival, Asakusa
'Matsuri', the Japanese word for festival, has a special meaning in this country that beats (hands down) the notion of a festival in a lot of other countries.
As my insider at anime studio Production I.G once told me, albeit sarcastically, “Japanese love their matsuri” - and he was spot on.
That affection usually doesn’t get much bigger than this: Sanja Matsuri Festival (三社祭), literally the Three Shrines Festival, in Asakusa. It's one of the three more over-the-top annual Shinto matsuri here in Tokyo... and also happens to be considered the wildest and weirdest.
Purportedly established to honor the triumvirate that set up Senso-ji, the ancient temple at Asakusa almost 1,500 years ago, the festival actually kicks off at the adjacent Asakusa Shrine on the third weekend of May, and has done so since the early Edo period (1603-1868).
That is, it usually has every year but was cancelled in 2011 as a direct result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami up north-east, and the subsequent power supply problems (related to the travails at the Fukushima nuclear power plant) that have gripped the region.
So May came and went without any dose of this festival, and that's just plain sad.
It usually takes over the entire district, involving hordes of locals, hundreds of thousands of spectators, and a dozen or more mikoshi (portable shrines) lugged along by chanting, sweaty bearers of all ages, many of whom also happen to be members of the yazuza clad in happi jackets and exceptionally short pants.
There’s also taiko drumming, shamisen, other kinds of traditional music, performance art, a highly-charged atmosphere, beer, Ozeki One Cup saké aplenty - and geisha. Well, not quite the spectacular apprentice geisha (actually called maiko) in Kyoto, but more of a working-class, downtown, down-to-earth Tokyo variant with subdued kimonos and middle-aged lady-next-door looks.
Anyway, here's to seeing the matsuri up and running again next year, and my #1 tip for anybody planning to go: after a cursory look, steer clear of the main drags and investigate the more honestly lively side-streets instead.