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Last weekend was the 3rd weekend of May. In other words, time for Sanja Matsuri!
Sanja Matsuri (三社祭, literally “Three Shrine Festival”) is one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo. It is considered one of the wildest and largest. The festival is held in honor of Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari and Hajino Nakatomo, the three men who established and founded Sensō-ji. Sanja Matsuri is held at Asakusa Shrine. Its prominent parades revolve around three mikoshi (three portable shrines referenced in the festival’s name), as well as traditional music (like taiko – drum) and dancing.
Taiko performances really marked the beat!
The festival’s main attractions are three Asakusa Shrine-owned mikoshi that appear on the third and final day of the festival. These three elaborate, black lacquered-wood shrines are built to act as miniature, portable versions of Asakusa Shrine. Decorated with gold sculptures and painted with gold leaf, each mikoshi weighs approximately one ton and cost ¥40 million to construct. They are carried on four long poles lashed together with ropes, and each needs approximately 40 people dispersed evenly to safely carry them. Throughout the day, a total of about 500 people participate in carrying each shrine.
The bearers essentially JUMP while walking with the mikoshi on their shoulders. This way of shouldering is “Edomae style | 江戸前”. Their shout is “say ya, soi ya, sah, sorya…etc” The mikoshi is swayed rapidly, up and down and a little to the right and left.
A closer look unveils that THEY ONLY WORE THE UPPER PART of the kimono! Well, it was warm and I bet the exercise made them sweat the hell out of them. But really, showing off the traditional sumo underwear while carrying a holy golden micro-temple didn’t feel quite right to the Western eye.
Yakuza often take part in local festivals where they often carry the shrine through the streets or simply pose, to proudly show off their tattoos. But where this tattoos came from? Starting in the Kofun period (300–600 AD) tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment this was called bokkei (墨刑) and ended up mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottoes such as “I am a slave who has run away from his master“.
During the Edo Period (when Tokyo became Japan’s capital) irezumi
or Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form it is known as today. Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists, but it is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take one to five years of weekly visits to complete and cost in excess of US$30,000.
Yakuza stereotypes are: Members often wear sunglasses and colourful suits so that their profession can be immediately recognized by civilians (katagi). Isn’t he a Yakuza boss?
Despite uncertainty about the single origin of yakuza organizations, most modern yakuza derive from two classifications which emerged in the mid-Edo Period (1603–1868): tekiya, those who primarily peddled illicit, stolen or shoddy goods; and bakuto, those who were involved in or participated in gambling.
Tekiya (peddlers) were considered one of the lowest social groups in Edo. As they began to form organizations of their own, they took over some administrative duties relating to commerce, such as stall allocation and protection of their commercial activities. During Shinto festivals, these peddlers opened stalls and some members were hired to act as security. Each peddler paid rent in exchange for a stall assignment and protection during the fair.
That may be the reason why they are so keen on traditional festivals!
Over the course of the three days, the Sanja Matsuri festival attracts 1.5 to 2 million locals and tourists every year.
Even if you missed the Festival, make sure you take a stroll around the most traditional area of Tokyo. It is possible to get to Asakusa by Tokyo Metro (Asakusa Line) or JR Yamanote (get out in Ueno and walk)!