The shitamachi (aka the eastern parts of Tokyo where the non-samurai population flourished in the Edo times, from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s) is a cheapo’s paradise for many reasons. Most relevant to this article is that it is home to several impressive matsuri, or folk festivals. Usually anchored on some jinja (Shinto shrine) the festivals invariably involve the procession around the shrine with one or several “omikoshi” or divine palanquins. The idea is that deity enshrined in the jinja is temporarily transferred into the omikoshi and it makes the rounds to bless the people of the area.
The festivals usually start in spring and last through autumn. May is a particularly active month since there are up to three major events—four if we extend this period by a week to also include the one in Torigoe Jinja south of Asakusa, north of Asakusabashi and west of Kuramae.
Sanja Matsuri | May 18 – 20
This year, the first big festival is Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri which is held on the third weekend of May—in this case, May 18–20, 2018.
On the first day you’ll get a nice big parade of the city’s notables (the geisha, the various dance and music troupes, the heads of the neighborhood associations, etc.). On the second day the omikoshi of the neighborhood associations (aka “chonaikai”) go from the Asakusa Jinja Shrine to Sensoji, around Asakusa and back to Sensoji.
On the third day, the three main omikoshi of the Asakusa Jinja’s turn. These three are the guests of honor (the festival is held for them—or to be more precise for the deities they represent: the three founders of Sensoji Temple). And the crowds are beyond any description; conventional Asakusa wisdom is that on the two last days of the Sanja, more than 1.5 million visitors come to the area for the festival. In other words, expect more color, shouting and alcohol than you’ve ever seen in Japan—or in Tokyo anyway.
Access Info: Asakusa Station via the Ginza and Asakusa Lines
Edo Firemen’s Annual Memorial (May 25 | 11am)
The second event is not very well known outside Asakusa but this is why you have TokyoCheapo, right? On May 25 at 11am, in the open lot behind Sensoji, the Edo Firemen’s Culture Preservation Association holds its annual memorial for the firemen who have fallen in the line of duty. This would be a very somber event if it weren’t that the participants are the spiritual descendants of the firemen of Edo (aka hikeshi).
Dressed in period clothing they perform (occasionally quite impressive considering they are just construction workers and not professional gymnasts) acrobatics on very tall bamboo ladders. This, after doing a round of Sensoji laughing, yelling and waving their matoi standards to the delight of the crowd.
Access info: Asakusa Station (Sensoji Temple grounds)
Next year: Kanda Matsuri | 2019
On odd years, one of Edo’s (old Tokyo’s) greatest festival is that of the Kanda Myojin Shrine. The Kanda Matsuri is held on odd-number years and unfortunately will not be in 2018. If you are planning ahead and want to attend in 2019, you can either try for the parade on the first date or for the omikoshi processions on the second.
The parade is quite impressive involving horsemen and a float depicting the giant catfish Namazu, responsible for earthquakes (people would believe anything back in those pre-science days—oh, wait…). What’s priceless though are the omikoshi borne on the shoulders of drunken downtowners in Edo-style thongs and hanten coats passing through Akihabara and exchanging taunts with the maids!
Torigoe Matsuri | June 9 – 10
Last but not least: the Torigoe Matsuri on June 9–10—a big event if only for the main feature, the omikoshi of the Torigoe Jinja weighing 4 tons (yes, it is the biggest in Tokyo). Like the Sanja, this festival also involves smaller omikoshi from the neighborhood associations but what everybody wants to see (and if possible, carry—carrying the omikoshi is for the Edokko and their descendants good for your luck/fortune reserves) is the big one. Again, crowds become so thick that usually the riot police needs to be summoned.
And in early May is the Golden Week holiday. See our guide on tips for avoiding the crowds during Japan’s busiest travel week.
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