The Sanja Matsuri in Six Key Words
Guideto JapanSociety Culture
Ujiko: Keeping Local Traditions Alive
The ujiko are the local parishioners in each of the 44 neighborhoods that make up the Asakusa area. It is the ujiko who are responsible for the most important part of the festival: carrying the mikoshi, or sacred palanquins. Nakajima Kōta, third-generation owner of the local restaurant Asakusa Mugitoro, was in charge of festivities this year for one of the neighborhoods close to Kaminarimon, at the very heart of old Asakusa.
“I was a young man of around 20 when I helped carry one of the three main shrine mikoshi for the first time. It was a wonderful experience. I was amazed to see hundreds of people cooperating and moving together in response to the shouted instructions.
“A matsuri is essentially a religious festival. So it’s important to preserve the traditions. But it’s also important to give as many people as possible an opportunity to experience the fun and excitement of the festival for themselves. Soaking up the atmosphere is an important part of what it’s all about. That’s a big part of our job: helping locals and visitors alike get the most out of the matsuri experience."
Asakusa Mugitoro (Address: Kaminarimon 2-2-4, Taitō-ku, Tokyo; Tel. +81 3-3842-1066; open daily; English menu available.)
Katsugite: The Bearers of Tradition
Shifting population patterns in recent years mean that many neighborhoods can no longer recruit sufficient numbers of ujiko to carry the heavy mikoshi at the festival each year. The neighborhood communities are helped out by teams of volunteer shrine bearers from near and far, people drawn by the opportunity to experience the excitement of the festival up close and to help keep the traditions alive at the same time.
Matsumoto Kōichi, director of the Asakusa Omatsuri Museum, is a good example. He has helped carry mikoshi at festivals all over the country. But for Matsumoto, the Sanja Matsuri has a special significance. “I grew up with the sound of festival music in my ears. It was like a nursery rhyme to me.” Matsumoto says his understanding of the festival has changed since he moved to Asakusa 12 years ago, and he became an ujiko himself.
“I realize now how important the festival is to the people who live here, many of them from families that have been settled here for generations. Of course the out-of-town shrine bearers really get into it, too—so I don’t want to draw too sharp a contrast. Both groups are necessary to ensure that the festival goes smoothly.
“The Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa has a reputation to live up to—everyone wants to see teams of strong, big-hearted people carrying the mikoshi. At the museum we want to make sure that the festival continues to bring enjoyment and excitement to the people who watch and take part, far into the future.”
Asakusa Omatsuri Museum (Address: Kaminarimon 2-3-5, Taitō-ku, Tokyo; Tel. +81 3-6796-7800; open daily.) http://omatsurimuseum.net/english
Mikoshi: Vehicles of the Gods
The Sanja Matsuri is famous for its mikoshi—more than a hundred are involved in the celebrations over the course of the weekend, in addition to the three colossal mikoshi belonging to Asakusa Shrine.
Mikoshi are sacred vehicles that carry the divine spirits of the deities. Often very impressively decorated, they feature imposing designs that incorporate elements of Shintō shrine architecture.
Vibrant colors are another characteristic of the Sanja Matsuri mikoshi. The current design of the Asakusa Shrine was influenced by the Tōshōgū Shrine in Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture, where the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu is entombed. (The present main structure of Asakusa Shrine was built when Ieyasu’s grandson was shōgun.) Although the original mikoshi were destroyed during World War II, replacements were built by Miyamoto Unosuke Co., Ltd. shortly after the war: Ichi no Miya and Ni no Miya were completed in 1950, and San no Miya was ready for the festival in 1953.
“The replacements were made during my grandfather’s time,” explains the seventh-generation Miyamoto Unosuke. “Not only were the mikoshi lost to fire—there were no adequate photographs either. Apparently they had to go to Nikkō and carry out research there to find out how to build the new mikoshi correctly.”
Some 20 separate processes are involved in making a single mikoshi: carving and assembling the wood, painting it with lacquer, casting and mounting the gold and other decorations, and layering the gold leaf on the inside of the mikoshi roof, for example. A specialist craftsman takes charge of each stage.
The mikoshi need to be not just graceful but sturdy because they are subjected to heavy vibrations and shaking during the festival. The masugumi bracket plays an important cushioning role by distributing the weight of the roof throughout the structure; it is assembled by a traditional method without using a single nail.
“We take this work very seriously,” Miyamoto explains. “The mikoshi we make are used in religious ceremonies, and for the ujiko they are an expression of the fierce pride they feel in their communities. We try to bring a certain purity of heart to our work. The festival is a time for people to come together across the generations, working together to make the festival a success. This leads to closer community ties. I would like to think that we are doing our part to strengthen the ties that bind the community together.”
Miyamoto Unosuke Co., Ltd. Head Office (Address: 6-1-15 Asakusa, Taitō-ku, Tokyo; Tel. +81 3-3873-4155; closed Sat-Sun and Japanese national holidays) Nishi Asakusa Store (Address: 2-1-1 Nishi Asakusa, Taitō-ku, Tokyo; Tel. +81 3-3844-2141; open daily.） http://www.miyamoto-unosuke.co.jp/english/index.html
Miyagashira: The Shrine Head Who Keeps Things in Order
“A miyagashira needs to keep a constant eye on everyone, making sure people are all right and that everything is running smoothly. It’s a job that requires a sense of duty and gratitude, and a willingness to work hard,” explains Sugibayashi Jin’ichi, seventh-generation bearer of the illustrious Shinmon Tatugorō name, which has connections to the festival dating back to the days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603 –1867). “If someone asks you a favor, you can’t very well say no. And you have to be open enough to take on board comments from people all around you. Those are the skills you need to be a good miyagashira.”
At the Sanja Matsuri, most of the miyagashira’s work goes on behind the scenes. Numerous rehearsals are necessary to make sure that all the 44 neighborhood associations and their mikoshi arrive at Asakusa Shrine at the right time. During the festival itself, the miyagashira has to maintain constant contact with people throughout the area to make sure that the three main mikoshi complete their circuits on schedule.
“It’s important to make sure that every neighborhood gets the same opportunities with the mikoshi. It can lead to frictions and resentments if one neighborhood takes too long and cuts into everyone else’s time. It’s vital to ensure that the time is shared equally among all the 44 groups.”
In 2008, the main event of the festival was cancelled after a number of accidents and controversies involving unruly elements of the crowd climbing onto the mikoshi. “That cancellation really helped focus people’s minds. It’s our job to make sure that everyone obeys the rules that are in place to ensure everyone’s safety. Cooperation is necessary for everyone to have their moment. Festival weekend is a time when the usual order of things is suspended, and people can get away with things that would be unthinkable at normal times. But that only makes it more important to make sure that reasonable standards are observed so that everything runs smoothly.”
Hanten and Festival Stalls: Bringing Color and Vibrancy to the Festival
By noon on Saturday May 19, 2012, the ujiko from the 44 neighborhoods had gathered with their mikoshi in a lot behind the Buddhist temple Sensōji. The shrine bearers are proudly wearing the special hanten coats, each one emblazoned with a unique design showing the wearer’s neighborhood and organization affiliation. The colorful hanten turn the area into a blaze of color and are a photographer’s dream.
Another essential part of the fun at any Japanese festival are the stalls selling food and games. The Sanja Matsuri is no exception, with a mind-boggling variety of stalls crammed into the grounds of Sensōji. Some of the stalls are classics found at every matsuri in Japan—such as kingyo sukui, where children try to scoop goldfish from a small pool with a paper spoon, and stalls hawking common matsuri snacks like takoyaki (fried octopus) and cotton candy. Other stalls feature Sanja Matsuri specialties, like refreshing anzu ame (candied apricots), skewers of iced cucumber, and delicious salted ayu (sweet fish).
(Originally written in Japanese by Hirose Tatsuya. Photographs by Yamada Shinji, Kodera Kei, Hanai Tomoko.)