Matsuri Days (1): A Guide to Asakusa and the Sanja Matsuri

Unlocking the Secrets of the Sanja Matsuri


An investigation into the origins of the Sanja Matsuri reveals deep connections with the Buddhist temple of Sensōji and the Shintō Asakusa Shrine. We talk to representatives from each to find out more about the background to the festival and the character of Asakusa and its people.

A Statue Found in the River

In order to understand the origins of the Sanja Matsuri festival we need to go back to the founding of Sensōji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. This takes us back to the year 628, the thirty-sixth year in the reign of Empress Suiko, who ruled from Asuka in modern Nara Prefecture. Early on the morning on the eighteenth day of the third month, two brothers—Hinokuma Hamanari and Takenari—were fishing downstream on what is now the Sumida River. Hauling in their catch, they discovered a Buddhist image in their nets, which they took immediately to Hajino Nakatomo, a local landowner and man of learning. Hajino immediately declared that the statue was an image of Avalokiteśvara (known as Kannon in Japanese), the Bodhisattva of Compassion who “hears the cries of the world.” Hajino resolved to become a Buddhist priest, and converted his home into a temple. This is said to be the origin of Sensōji, the temple that dominates the Asakusa district of Tokyo to this day.

At the time, Asakusa was a small fishing village on an inlet in what is now Tokyo Bay, but before long people started to flock to the temple to pay their respects to the image of Kannon, and the settlement steadily prospered.

Yano Kōji from the Asakusa Shrine.

So what about the Asakusa Shrine, the Shintō shrine that stands immediately next door to Sensōji? Yano Kōji, a senior priest at the Asakusa Shrine, recounts the tale of its founding:

“Toward the end of the Heian Period [794–1185], a descendant of Hajino Nakatomo had a dream in which the Kannon Bodhisattva appeared to him and said: ‘Your ancestors lifted me up from the depths of the sea, faithfully defended and supported me, and contributed to the development of Asakusa. They have rendered distinguished service. You shall revere these three [the Hinokuma brothers and Hajino] as gods next to Sensōji.’ And that is apparently how the Asakusa Shrine began.”

The Asakusa Shrine is known familiarly as Sanja-sama—the san meaning “three” and the ja “shrine,” in reference to the three founders of Sensōji. This is also the etymology of the Sanja Matsuri festival, celebrated every May.

The Asakusa Shrine.

A Procession of Deities

The oldest existing description of the Sanja Matsuri dates from 1312. On the 18th day of the third month, the date that the Kannon Bodhisattva appeared to the fishermen, the spirits of the three deities were transported from the Asakusa Shrine to the main hall of Sensōji in mikoshi, “sacred palanquins” or portable shrines.

The three “mikoshi” of the Shintō Asakusa Shrine, housing the divine spirits of the three men who founded the Buddhist temple next door.

The three gods then spent the night in communion with the Kannon Bodhisattva. The next day, the three mikoshi carrying the three deities crossed the Sumida River by boat and were paraded through the streets of the town.

“The original idea behind the Sanja Matsuri,” Yano explains, “was for the deified spirits of the three founders of the temple to spend one night a year with the Kannon Bodhisattva in the main prayer hall of Sensōji, before being paraded in the mikoshi through the streets of Asakusa. An enormous crowd carries the mikoshi, causing it to shake and sway back and forth; this symbolizes that the power of the gods is being scattered onto the land.”

The festival continued to combine elements of Buddhism and Shintō until the second half of the nineteenth century. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, however, Shintō was made the official state religion as part of the new government’s drive toward a modern, unified state. A law was passed formally separating Buddhism from “native” Shintō traditions. Following this, the festival underwent several changes. From now on, the Asakusa Shrine was to be considered the sole location of the Sanja Matsuri, and the tradition of having the mikoshi spend a night with the Kannon Bodhisattva before crossing the river by boat was abolished. One custom that did remain, though, was parading the mikoshi through the streets.

“Nowadays even local residents often don’t know about the history of the festival, so most tourists and other visitors probably aren’t aware of it either,” Yano says. “But every festival has its own unique history of oral traditions and local customs. Knowing a bit more about the history of the festival can only enhance people’s enjoyment.”

 In the year 2000, the tradition of placing the three mikoshi in the main prayer hall of the Sensōji temple overnight was brought back to enhance awareness of the festival’s history and its close connections to the Asakusa area. The ritual of carrying the mikoshi up to the main hall and back down again were performed for the first time in more than 100 years. In March 2012, to mark the festival’s 700th anniversary, the mikoshi made the trip across the Sumida River by boat —a tradition that had been abandoned since the Meiji Restoration, except for a single revival back in 1958.

In March 2012, the “mikoshi” were transported across the Sumida River for only the second time since the nineteenth century. (Photo courtesy of the Asakusa Shrine)

Symbol of Community Spirit

Contrary to the hopes of the Meiji-era leaders, the Sanja Matsuri never really became primarily associated with the Asakusa Shrine. The festival has always maintained its deep connections to Sensōji, the Buddhist temple that is the symbol of Asakusa—an area of the city that has for centuries encapsulated the culture of the common people. Buddhist priest Amino Gikō touches on the close relationship between Asakusa residents and the temple:

Amino Gikō, priest at Sensōji.

“There is no class discrimination at Sensōji—everyone can find salvation in the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There has always been a strong bond of faith between the local people and the ‘Kannon of Asakusa.’ The Kannon Bodhisattva understands the imperfections of human beings. At the same time, the spirit of the Buddha resides inside the heart of each human being, allowing a spiritual connection to be formed. 

“Sensōji is an integral part of the neighborhood—children pass through the temple grounds on their way to school, and grownups walk through on the way to the shops. That juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane encapsulates what the spirit of Asakusa is all about.”

The Sanja Matsuri is also an opportunity for local residents to come together and celebrate their community. Asakusa is a place where there are few of the boundaries between social groups that exist elsewhere, and the generations mix happily together. This special sense of cohesion and old-fashioned community spirit is one of the things that makes Asakusa so popular as a tourist attraction.

The main hall at Sensōji.

Locals say that it is the Sanja Matsuri in May, rather than January 1, that marks the transition from one year to the next. The exact date of each year’s festival is announced by the Asakusa Shrine in July the preceding year. The preliminary preparations begin in December, and by the New Year holiday the work leading up to the event shifts into full gear.  

Organizing the 2012 festival was especially hard work, since this year marked the momentous 700th anniversary of the festival. For locals, pride in the success of the event was mixed with a touch of disappointment that it was over. Despite the excitement of this year’s events, minds will soon start to turn toward next year’s festival. After 700 years, the Sanja Matsuri continues to play a vital role at the heart of the local community.

(Originally written in Japanese by Sakurai Shin. Photographs by Kodera Kei.)

temple shrine Asakusa Matsuri Sensoji mikoshi Sanja Matsuri