Party Like an Edokko: Tokyo Festivals in May

Grigoris Miliaresis
tokyo festivals may
Photo by Grigoris Miliaresis

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 matsuri, or folk festivals, that most colorful among Japan’s traditional events. Usually anchored on some jinja (Shinto shrine) the matsuri invariably involve the procession around the jinja’s “parish” 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.

Kanda Matsuri (May 11-17)

tokyo festivals may
Photo by Grigoris Miliaresis

Matsuri usually start in spring and last through autumn. May is a particularly active month since there are three major such 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. The first event, and one of Edo’s (old Tokyo’s) greatest is that of the Kanda Myojin shrine in, well, Kanda on a small hill over Akihabara. The Kanda Matsuri is held on odd-number years and this year its dates are May 11-17 (main parades on May 13, 14 and 17). If you want to attend, 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!

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Access Info: Kanda, Ochanomizu, Akihabara and Jimbocho areas in the Chiyoda Ward. You can get there from Hibiya Line’s, JR’s and Tsukuba Express’ Akihabara Stations, the JR and Marunouchi  Line’s Ochanomizu Stations, Ginza Line’ Suehirocho Station.

Sanja Matsuri (May 19-21)

Photo by Grigoris Miliaresis

The next big thing (pun intended) is Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri, held on the third weekend of May—in this case, May 19-21. Again, 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”) going from the Asakusa Jinja Shrine to Sensoji, around Asakusa and back to Sensoji and on the third the three main omikoshi of the Asakusa Jinja. These three are the guests of honor (the matsuri is held for them or to be more precise for the kami/deities they represent, the three people responsible for the founding 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 matsuri. In other words, expect more color, shouting and alcohol than you’ve ever seen in Japan—or in Tokyo anyway).

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Access Info:  Asakusa in the Taito Ward. You can get there from Ginza and Asakusa Lines’ and Tsukuba Express’ Asakusa Station.

Edo Firemen’s Annual Memorial (May 25)

Photo by Grigoris Miliaresis

The third event is not very well known outside Asakusa but this is why you have TokyoCheapo, right? On May 25, 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 in the Taito Ward. You can get there from Ginza and Asakusa Lines’ and Tsukuba Express’ Asakusa Station.

Torigoe Matsuri (June 10-11)

Photo by Grigoris Miliaresis used under CC

Last but not least: the Torigoe Matsuri on June 11-12—a big event if only for the main feature, the omikoshi of the Torigoe Jinja shrine weighing 4 tons (yes, it is the biggest in Tokyo). Like the Sanja, the matsuri 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 huge omikoshi. Again, crowds become so thick that usually the riot police needs to be summoned.

Access Info:  In the Torigoe area in Taito Ward. You can get there from Oedo Line’s Kuramae Station or from JR and Asakusa Line’s Asakusabashi station.

So there you have it: a month of festivals, all free and conveniently spaced on consecutive weekends—can you do them all?

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N.B. Walking distances from all stations are about of 10-20 minutes. Because these festivals involve huge crowds, traffic blocks etc. expect moving around to be less smooth than usual.

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