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Wasshoi! Wasshoi! Wasshoi!

It's summer, and summer in the shitamachi means ... festival! We have so many local festivals in this area, and every weekend you can hear "wasshoi, wasshoi, wasshoi" in every small alley. It's the sound you make as you carry a mikoshi or portable shrine; the closest English equivalent would be "heave ho!"

Tokyo has three big festivals: Asakusa Sanja Matsuri, Kanda Matsuri and Hie Matsuri. The Asakusa festival is undeniably the biggest. It's held on the third weekend in May, it's the only one that's fully celebrated each year (the other two are biennial) and it attracts 1,5 million spectators. It's one helluva party. It begins on the Friday with the Meibutsu Daigyoretsu, a musical parade of traditionally dressed musicians and dancers; and it continues on the Saturday and the Sunday when mikoshi are paraded around the neighbourhood throughout the day. I've never attended it. What? You think I'd survive a crowd of 1,5 million?

I do attend smaller shitamachi festivals, especially the Shitaya Matsuri, which will be held again this coming weekend. We didn't have a festival last year, due to the big quake, so this year's event should be extra cheerful.

Everyone participates! Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Let me explain how a matsuri is organized. This one, the Shitaya Matsuri, is held in Higash-Ueno and Taitō 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-Chōme. It's centered on the main Shitaya Jinja, which has a history of more than 1200 years, but there are many smaller shrines in this area, and each city block is linked to its closest shrine. Residents of that block carry their local shrine's mikoshi. They're called the ujiko, in other words, a group of local people who worship the same local gods or ujigami. (You could translate ujiko as parish in English.) About 7000 residents from 29 ujiko participate in the Shitaya Matsuri each year.
The mikoshi is heavy, and it's hot, and a couple of shoulders are turning blue ...

The priests of the local shrine ask the kami (gods) to enter the mikoshi, and then the mikoshi is carried around the village so that the kami can share their goodwill with all homes and businesses.
The word mikoshi can be written in two ways as 輿 (honorable palanquin) or 神輿 (the gods' palanquin). A mikoshi is an ornate palanquin that is carried on long poles. It usually has a gilded phoenix (hō-ō) on top, and it contains a symbol or emblem of the shrine deity.

The phoenix on top of a mikoshi

The use of a mikoshi was first recorded in the 8th century, when one was used to carry the deity from Kyushu's Usa Shrine to Nara, where the deity was to guard the construction of the great Buddha image at the Todaiji temple in 749 AD. Mikoshi had become a common practice by the 10th century. T
oday most festivals feature mikoshi. You're not supposed to give the kami a smooth ride, no!, you have to amuse the kami by zigzagging down the street, swaying in all directions and pushing the mikoshi up and down. That's due to the kami's turbulent nature, called aramitama, but never mind, now we're getting into esoteric stuff.
You can see a photo of Shitaya Jinja's main mikoshi at the shrine's website.
These shrines are incredibly heavy, and about 40 people clad in happi (coats) and hachimaki (headbands) are required to carry them. 
Next month, in June, there's another funky shitamachi festival at Torigoe Jinja. This shrine boasts the heaviest mikoshi in Tokyo, known as the Sengan Mikoshi. A kan is a unit of weight used in Japan in earlier times, and sengan (1000 kan) equals 3,75 tons. It has to be carried by 150 to 200 people!

I've included many photos that were taken at both the Kanda Matsuri and the Shitaya Matsuri. This year's Shitaya Matsuri is from today, Friday 11 May, until Sunday 13 May, with the main parades on both Saturday and Sunday. Come! It's fun!

Preparing the kids' mikoshi

Preparing the mikoshi

Triple cute!

The little ones. The adults who walk with them support most of the mikoshi's weight. ^^

This looks like a very serious conversation for a festival!

This was a woman's team who participated in the Kanda Matsuri. Go, girls!

While the men were sweating and grunting, the women kept smiling. Go, girls!


Here you can see the six poles on which a big mikoshi is carried.

I looked at these guys and thought, "You could play front row in a rugby team!"

"I think we should go that way next."

"Are you sure it's not that way?"


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