No trip to Tokyo is complete without Asakusa, an old charming neighbourhood located on the west bank of the Sumida-gawa River. Specifically, if you happen to be visiting the city in May, be sure to check out Sanja Matsuri (三社祭), one of the famous festivals in Tokyo.
Sanja Matsuri is an annual festival held in Asakusa on the third weekend of May. Taking place at Asakusa Shrine which is right next to Sensoji Temple, the three-day celebration is the largest of its kind and also Asakusa’s main spring event, attracting over 2 million visitors every year.
The Sanja Matsuri started out as a festival in honour of the founders of Sensoji Temple, Hajinomanakachi, Hamanari Hinokuma, and Takenari Hinokuma. Just like other Japanese festivals or matsuri (祭), Sanja Matsuri features processions of portable shrines called mikoshi (神輿), which are believed to be housing deities from shrines or temples. Parading these mikoshi through the neighbourhoods carries the meaning of bringing good fortune to the locals and businesses. As these mikoshi are carried by manpower, teamwork and unity are indispensable. Therefore, the festival is also held with the aim of promoting a sense of community among the residents of Asakusa.
Although Sanja Matsuri is a celebration with religious significance and solemnity, it is very popular among visitors because it is a good opportunity to observe traditional Japanese culture and experience how the people celebrating festivals passionately.
The festivities begins on Friday afternoon with Daigyoretsu Parade (大行列, means “large parade”) which acts as curtain raiser of the celebration. It sees the participants including city officials, priests, musicians, dancers and geisha, all in lavish costumes and Edo-period clothing, marching down from Asakusa Kenban through the Kaminarimon and Nakamise-dori to Asakusa Shrine. A dance performance called Binzasara Mai is then performed at the shrine to pray for good harvest and prosperity.
Full-scale mikoshi parades take place on the next two days of the festival. On Saturday afternoon, nearly 100 mikoshi from all 44 neighbourhoods of the Asakusa district are being carried to Asakusa Shrine to be purified and blessed by the priests. The scene of the mikoshi teams spreading throughout the grounds of Sensoji Temple waiting for the ceremony is a spectacular view not to be missed. The highlight event happens on Sunday, which is the final day of the festival. It starts as early as 6 AM at Asakusa Shrine, from which the three large mikoshi representing the revered three men are brought out to pay visit and bestow blessing to all 44 neighbourhoods of Asakusa. The march is complete when the three mikoshi are returned to Asakusa Shrine at about 8 PM.
The atmosphere of the entire Sanja Matsuri is lively and uplifting. During the festival, the whole Asakusa gets wild, showcasing incredible vigor and energy.
Despite the weight of the mikoshi, bearers donning happi coat or festival clothing are bouncing these heavy lacquered wood structures up and down vigorously, while some others are directing and leading the procession, or clapping and cheering to boost the team spirit.
Occasionally, things can go a little out of hand as the number of participants wanting to bear the mikoshi is far too many than it needs. Hence, they compete fiercely with each other, pulling and pushing and clashing in trying to grab or just to get close to the palanquin.
Japanese flutes and drums are heard throughout the festival, accompanying the marching steps, the chanting, the vivid colours of decorated mikoshi and costumes. Many food stalls and vendors are lining the streets offering tantalizing street foods and fun festival games. Together, Sanja Matsuri is definitely a feast to the senses. Simply immerse yourself into the celebration and have a great time!
It is possible for the visitors to follow one of their favourite mikoshi and experience being part of the parade. Otherwise, Asakusa Shrine and Sensoji Temple are popular spots where visitors gather to watch the festival’s important events, including the departure and finishing of the parades.
Please be reminded that in the case of raining, the Daigyoretsu Parade on Friday will be cancelled.
Sanja Matsuri is one of the rare occasions where you get to see geisha outside of Kyoto. Besides the Daigyoretsu Parade, visitors can also purchase tickets to catch the highly-rated geisha dance performance held at the Asakusa Kenban in conjunction with the festival.
See the iconic red lantern at Kaminarimon being lifted up in order to make way for processions. Because the giant lantern is already taking up almost half the size of the gate, it has to be folded up so that the mikoshi can pass through. An interesting sight not to be missed!
As with other large-scale events, trains and stations will be more crowded than usual. It is advisable to plan ahead and allow plenty of travel time.
Expect large crowds. Spectators as well as participants taking part in the parades will be flooding the streets. Stick together with your friends or family. Designate a meeting place beforehand in case you lose each other.
Although police force is deployed to maintain security and order during the celebration, please be careful. Stay alert to your surroundings especially when being around the mikoshi parades (even you are eager to capture those interesting moments).