Today I headed for that most renowned of Tokyo’s downtown areas, Asakusa, for the district’s famous big annual festival, the Sanja Matsuri. (Listen here to the sounds of it.)
Asakusa is most famous for Sensoji (‘senso’ simply being another reading of the characters that make up ‘asakusa’). It is said to have been founded in 628AD when fishermen caught in their nets and landed a small statue of the Buddha. The village headman took it as a sign, became a priest, and built the temple that is now Sensoji.
It is now one of Tokyo’s biggest traditional events, drawing tens of thousands of people to feel the supercharged atmosphere of the festival. Everything is centered, of course, on the temple, but the immediate focus of the action is three floats that different neighborhood groups carry around the neighborhood on three different pre-planned routes. There are incidental floats as well, but the big three form the core. Things get underway late-morning, and the beating of drums and blowing of flutes permeates the air from every direction.
To say the neighborhood groups ‘carry’ the floats around is a wan understatement. Fueled by the early summer heat, the eager crowd, the sanction of centuries of tradition and as much alcohol as you like, the shrine floats are the center of almost manic enthusiasm and toss like little gold boats on a very choppy human sea. Up close the atmosphere is nothing less than fierce, although never completely out of hand.
Most conspicuous are the tattoos, most of them full body jobs. Shouldering the poles of the floats, pressed together as close as can be, the shrine bearers are a mass of chanting, sweating red-faces, egged on by incessant drum beats, more shouting, and whistles.
The procession through the streets is energetic enough, but the place to be is in the thick of the crowd as the float passes in front of the main Sensoji Temple building. The word is ‘climax’, and the feelings invoked are exactly those you associate with it’s most visceral usage. The crescendo begins as the shrine passes under the Houzoumon Gate just in front of the temple. A handful of loinclothed men climb onto the float, start blowing whistles in a shrill rhythmic tweeing, waving fans in rough synchrony and generally whipping things up. After a few false starts and stops the rhythm takes hold and is reflected in what now become not merely rolling, but positively bucking, floats. The men below are roaring their chants and the ground itself seems to be shaking. It is here that you really feel it: the wildness at the heart of the most elaborate of human systems and endeavors – the kind of thing that the West now knows only with football, rock concerts and hard core clubbing.
By 3pm there are signs of things slightly flagging. The drunkenness has reaching the stage where people are staggering slightly or actually passing out. Red faced, shoving, beating rhythms in the air - in spite of an air of what the hell boisterousness, amazingly there is no overt aggression, and in the six hours I was there I didn't catch even a whiff of any fighting. There is, however, still plenty of energy left, and the processions continue on their routes, now more or less in ‘default’ mode.
The float I followed the most religiously stopped for a while for some entertainment in the form of song and dance. The red-faced middle aged MC was obviously tanked up and his introductions went well beyond what was welcome in both content and length. He introduced the first singer as having a lovely voice but ‘unfortunately she’s not much of a beauty, so why not listen with your eyes closed’, and, two minutes later, was still blabbering on, until almost forcibly evicted by the women on stage, rolling their eyes and bowing apologetically to the audience.
One outstanding feature of the festival was the number of foreigners present. I got to spoke to several, including roofers from Germany, tourists from all over, English teachers galore, and no one less than those legendary funksters, the Fatback Band playing at Tokyo’s Cotton Club from Monday till Friday (and whom I can't wait to hear tomorrow night!)
Sanja Matsuri - the video
2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
A short walk from Asakusa Station on the Toei Subway Asakusa Line, the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line and the Tobu Isesaski Line.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
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