Feast, Fun, and Historical Religion: The Sanja Matsuri Parade

Humans love to celebrate. All over the world, for whatever rationales they have, groups of people gather to have fun. In Japan, it’s the same - however, festivals here are plentiful compared to other countries. Merriments, markings, and observances continually happen throughout the country, in different regions, for different reasons.

Celebrating a Matsuri

Participating in and continuing this festival culture has roots that tie to Shintoism, as well as Chinese traditions that passed down in ancient Japanese history. The way some of these festivals are presently celebrated may be far from how they were a hundred or so years ago, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese from giving importance – in its novel way - to the name of whatever commemoration that may be. 

There is around 19 famous “matsuri” (Japanese for “festival”) that occur annually. Many of them occur predominantly around Tokyo and Kyoto – others in Osaka, Akita, Kawasaki, Nagoya, Nara, etcetera. One of the most famous matsuris that occur in Tokyo is the Sanja Matsuri. 

What is Sanja Matsuri?    

The Sanja Matsuri, in English, is translated as “Three Shrine Festival”. It is written as “三社祭”. It is also nicknamed “Sanja Festival”. Tokyo has three Shinto festivals that top tourists’ “must-experience” lists when in Tokyo for the end of spring, and Sanja Matsuri is one of them. Sanja Matsuri gathers the largest amount of people looking to have a good time and can get quite rowdy.

The Sanja Matsuri happens once every year, in the district of Asakusa. The point of the festival is to revere the founders of Senso-ji/Sensoji, which is a temple. Those founders – now kami, or gods - are namely Hajino Nakatomo, Hinokuma Hamanari, and Hinokuma Takenari, all of whom are enshrined in this temple, in the Asakusa Shrine. 

The History Behind the Sanja Matsuri Parade

Over the centuries, there have been many variations and names given to what is now known as the Sanja Matsuri. It’s been known as Asakusa Matsuri and Kannon Matsuri. The history of the Sanja Matsuri begins with a legend and ends with a religious celebration dedicated to the figures behind that renowned story. 

The legend begins with two brothers - Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, who were fishermen. One day, they chanced upon a Bodhisattva Kannon statuette tangled in the fishing net that they left out on the Sumida River. This supposedly happened on March 18, 628, at dawn. Hajino Nakamoto, who was a wealthy chief of the local village, found out that the brothers had picked up the statuette.

Hajino Nakamoto, who was educated in Buddhist teachings, knew exactly who the statuette represented. He saw that it was precious and holy, and shared this information with the two brothers, who eventually converted to Buddhism because of him. As newly found devotees who would end up dedicating the rest of their lives preaching about Buddhism, the three men combined forces to turn Hajino Nakamoto’s house into a temple for worshipping Kannon; the god the statuette signified. 

Symbols of Hope and New Beginnings

The statue was enshrined in this temple that the trio made, and was officially founded in 645 as the Senso-ji temple. That technically makes it the oldest temple in all of Tokyo. It survived the Tokugawa period, being designated as the Tokugawa clan’s tutelary temple during the 1600’s. Sadly, bombrings that occurred during the second world war wrecked the original temple. Later, it was rebuilt with the inspiration of it symbolizing peace and rebirth. 

The courtyard of the temple holds a tree which was also partially destroyed when the bombrings took place. From its stump, however, flourished another tree, which has since fully developed. The locals also see this as a symbol of growth and revival, emerging unified and strong from what was once a war-torn city.

The Construction of The Asakusa Shrine

The Senso-ji temple may have been dedicated to Kannon, but during the Tokugawa period, it was realized that the three men who had done so much in the name of Buddhism hadn’t been properly venerated as kami. So, right across the Senso-ji temple, is a shrine that was commissioned by Tokugawa Iemitsu during 1649. This Shinto shrine is called the Asakusa shrine and is dedicated to those three men, who are celebrated on Sanja Matsuri. Many of the festivities revolve around this shrine, and it has a big part to play in the activities and importance of the yearly event.

What Happens During This Festival?

Sanja Matsuri, it’s all about loud, active, and cheerful energy. Locals take out their instruments that make noise (whistles, flutes, and traditional Japanese drums or “taiko”) with them as they march down the street; some of them chanting. 

In preparation, the 3 deities’ shrines are moved into a mikoshi, which is a portable Shinto shrine. These serve as divine containers to temporarily hold them while they are celebrated and carried around, outside their assigned temple. This is also the main event of the entire festival. Add those two factors together, and it’s no surprise the mikoshi are decorated elaborately, embellished with expensive adornments, such as gold-leaf painted structures. 

The cost for one mikoshi would amount to 40 million yen, which is near $400,000. They are exceptionally heavy, weighing in at around 907 kilograms. Because they are so heavy, it takes 40 people to hold it up and carry it around, holding at poles that are tied to each other with rope. This job is turned over to different people as the day goes by, with the shrine being lifted by approximately 500 people throughout the day.

Shake for Good Luck

The mikoshi is made to be paraded along the streets of Asakusa – and not in as elegant a manner as you may think one would treat such an expensive structure. Instead, the mikoshi is given a good shaking and rattling by those carrying it, as this tradition believes that it empowers the kami, which in turn, lets them give good luck. Sometimes, someone may even stand atop one of the poles to help guide the carriers where to go, to avoid any traffic problems. 

Aside from the three main mikoshis that are the stars of the show, there are other kami that get attention – around 100 of them. These kami may not be as famous, but they still get their own smaller mikoshi, carried by children and women, depending on which mikoshi it is. 

What Time of The Year Is Sanja Matsuri Celebrated?

Festivities of this observance begin every third week of May, specifically around the Asakusa Shrine. It lasts three days, and as many 1 & ½ million to 2 million people (of whom are mostly locals, some foreigners) come to this part of Asakusa during the weekend to celebrate. 

The Blow by Blow on the Daily

The preparation day, around 7 A.M., unofficially marks the start of it all, as a traditional and crucial Shinto ceremony is performed. It entails the head priest of the Asakusa Shrine preparing the kami in their respective shrines to be transferred to their mikoshi. There is a small door on each mikoshi which is opened by this head priest, signaling the spirits to come in and stay there.

  • The first day (usually a Friday, but this is not always the case) is when the celebration truly begins, and gets loud, as the large parade or “Daigyoretsu” begins. The journey is long; carriers must cycle through each other, carrying 6 semi-major mikoshis (they are usually from central neighborhoods) for 19 blocks, from Yanagi Street, Nakamise-dori, all the way to the Asakusa Shrine. Those who are actively participating in this also add to the festivities by donning colorful costumes on their person. Everyone from geisha, city officials in traditional garb, performers, dancers, and other artists join the fun.
  • The second day (usually Saturday, but open to change) is when the 100 mikoshis are paraded by their respective neighborhood teams, beginning at the Kaminarimon, continuing all throughout Nakamise-dori, up until Hozomon, where Kannon is worshiped. The mikoshi finally ends up in Asakusa shrine, where they receive their final blessings to keep them pure until their next blessing in another year. After, the 100 mikoshi return to the shrines where they initially were situated at.

There is a spirit of competitiveness present here, as teams from different neighborhoods try to outdo each other in terms of who is most genki. “Genki” is a Japanese term used to describe health and enthusiasm. Whoever is louder, most active, and exhibits the most intense “ganbatte spirit” (a.k.a., does their absolute best), impress the communities who appreciate their luck-inducing behavior.

  • The third and the last day (usually Sunday, but open to change) holds the most intense and important activities. The 3 major mikoshi are moved at dawn along Nakamise-dori, on their way to the Kaminarimon. Just as the legend was told, this specific tradition is made to commemorate the three men and their conception and creation of the Senso-ji temple. It is made sure that at least one of these 3 major mikoshis should pass by each district in downtown Asakusa – and there are 44 of them. 

The entire festival ends as people carry the mikoshi during the evening – around 8 P.M. - back to where they are originally enshrined, which is the Asakusa Shrine. This takes quite a while, so it ends up as another large, late-night procession.

When is Sanja Matsuri in the year 2017?

The days that the Sanja Matsuri are celebrated vary year to year; it’s not set in stone to be on a Thursday, or any other day. As for 2017, the Sanja Matsuri began on the 21st of May, which was a Sunday. The last day of the festival was Tuesday, May 23. 

When is Sanja Matsuri in the year 2018?

In 2018, the Sanja Matsuri shall start on Friday, May 18. The last day of celebration will be May 20, which is a Sunday. 

Bring A Map of Asakusa With You When You Go To the Sanja Matsuri

If you want to join the procession of the mikoshi, you may get disoriented with the different districts, streets, and enormous crowds of people joining in on the festival. To keep track of where you’re going, download a map of Asakusa, with the Asakusa Shrine as your point of reference. Have a map of the different stations of Tokyo around Asakusa (you can download them online and keep them in your smartphone, or print them out), and learn how they connect with each other so you can find your way back to your hotel through the masses of people. 

The station nearest the Shrine is the Asakusa Station. This can be found on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Subway Line. If you plan to travel there during this time, it’s best to start booking a hotel ahead. For tourists to enjoy the festival's maximum potential, they should get there with friends and family (or with a friend who's a local), and with some knowledge of what the festival truly symbolizes, for better cultural immersion.