Sanja Matsuri is a festival held over three days every year in Asakusa, with an estimated annual attendance of over 1.8 million people. The activities center around popular tourist attractions Asakusa Shrine and Sensō-ji Temple. The entire town is whipped into a festive fervor during this time, as representatives parade about 100 mikoshi (portable shrines) through the streets and show them off to spectators.
The sheer scale and energy of the event have captivated the hearts and minds of many - even foreigners! - and quite a number of people make special arrangements to visit again and again to take part each year.
But what exactly is the Sanja Matsuri, and what are some of its must-see sights and activities? We asked a few long-term foreign residents in the area for their recommendations.
Main image photo credit: Asakusa Shrine
- Table of Contents
- What is the Sanja Matsuri?
- Origins of the Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa Shrine, and Sensō-ji
- How to get to the Sanja Matsuri
- Must-see highlights and events of the Sanja Matsuri
- Recommendation 1: Experience a Shinto Ritual at the Reitaisai Ceremony
- Recommendation 2: Get psyched for the festival at the omikoshi parade starting point
- Recommendation 3: Catching sight of the Kaminarimon gate and omikoshi together
- Recommendation 4: Chasing the parading omikoshi through the alleyways!
- The charms of Sanja Matsuri from the viewpoint of foreign residents of the area
- Things to note for first-time visitors of Sanja Matsuri
What is the Sanja Matsuri?
Before getting into that, though, let's talk more about the festival itself first. Sanja Matsuri, which translates to Three Shrines Festival, is actually the shortened version of the festival's official name, Asakusa Jinja Reitaisai, the Reitaisai being the most important ceremonial celebration of a shrine. For Asakusa Shrine, this event is held on the third weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) of May every year*.
The festival began near the end of the Kamakura period and was formerly a funatogyo (boat procession) where people would place omikoshi on boats floating on the sea. This kept evolving over the generations until its current iteration of holding an omikoshi procession along the streets instead.
*Due to the spread of coronavirus in 2020, the festival has been postponed and is scheduled to be held from Friday, October 16 to Sunday, October 18 instead, subject to approval by the ceremonial site on August 31.
Origins of the Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa Shrine, and Sensō-ji
The festival takes place in Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine located next to Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple.
In the minds of many Japanese, there is often a syncretistic fusion of Japan's native Shintoism with Buddhism, a religion overseas that was introduced into the country later. Having shrines and temples at locations near each other is, therefore, not an uncommon sight here. The extremely close proximity of Asakusa Shrine and Sensō-ji, however, is something quite unusual!
To find out why they're located so near each other, we'll have to go back in time a little, to the time of the shrine and temple's establishment. Let's start with Sensō-ji, which traces its history all the way back to the 7th century.
The story began with the fishermen brothers Hinokuma-no-Hamanari and Takenori. They had been trying to catch fish by the Sumida River to no avail. Instead, their nets kept hauling up a Buddha statue. Mystified, the brothers showed the icon to Haji-no-Matsuchi, a highly-educated person of the time, who identified it as a statue of Grateful Kannon.
The brothers made a wish to the statue for their fishing business to go well, and ever since then, would always haul in bumper catches. Upon seeing that, Haji-no-Matsuchi decided to enshrine the Kannon statue in his own house, and that was how Sensō-ji came to be.
After that, Haji-no-Matsuchi's children received an oracle to deify Haji-no-Matsuchi, Hinokuma-no-Hamanari, and Takenori. Thus, they built Asakusa Shrine to enshrine the three new gods, who came to be known as Sanja-sama (three noble shrines). This later became used as Sanja Festival's name as well.
How to get to the Sanja Matsuri
The Sanja Matsuri will be held over an extensive area, and there are many exciting spots to look out for. Still, the best way to start this journey would be to make your way to Asakusa Shrine first.
Asakusa Shrine is a 7-minute walk from Asakusa Station on the Tobu Line, Toei Asakusa Line, and Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. It's also about a 10-minute walk from Asakusa Station on the Tsukuba Express. The road leading from the station to the shrine has preserved its traditional town appearance, and you'll pass by the famous Kaminarimon gate as well. On paper, the minutes seem long, but with so many things to take in along the way, you'll be at the shrine before you even realize it!
Must-see highlights and events of the Sanja Matsuri
The Sanja Matsuri takes place over three days, and each day features different activities. First-time spectators would naturally wonder what the must-see events are and when the best time to visit is, and that's where we come in! In this article, we'll be introducing you to some excellent ways to enjoy Sanja Matsuri from Asakusa Shrine.
Recommendation 1: Experience a Shinto Ritual at the Reitaisai Ceremony
Most people associate Sanja Matsuri with its parade of portable shrines, but the main highlight of the festival was originally the rituals that took place in the shrine. On the morning of the second day, the Reitaisai ceremony will be held in the shrine building. This event allows you to observe an important Shinto ritual that's rarely held these days up close! If you're hoping to fully immerse yourself in Japanese culture, you'll want to attend this uniquely Japanese ceremony.
Recommendation 2: Get psyched for the festival at the omikoshi parade starting point
During the Chonai Mikoshi Rengo Togyo (Town Omikoshi Alliance Procession) event that takes place at noon on the second day, head over to the starting point of the omikoshi parade to see how the portable shrines embark on their journeys. Two types of omikoshi will be carried around during the festival: Honsha Mikoshi (Shrine Omikoshi) and Chonai Mikoshi (Town Omikoshi). And there are about 100 Chonai Mikoshi in all!
When the name of a certain town community is called, the representatives shoulder their omikoshi and, after each omikoshi is ritually purified, set off through the shrine's torii gate to parade the portable shrine around through roads and alleys before making their way back to their own neighborhood.
During this time, a tamafuri (soul swaying) ritual is performed for the god dwelling in the omikoshi at the same time. This is a ritual where the omikoshi is deliberately swayed and shaken roughly while being carried around. At the starting point of the parade, bearers of the omikoshi will be at their freshest and most energetic, so the swinging and swaying of the omikoshi is proportionately at its most vigorous. It's one of the most exciting sights of the festival, and you don't want to miss it! This is also the only time where you'll be able to see all the omikoshi in town in one place.
Recommendation 3: Catching sight of the Kaminarimon gate and omikoshi together
If you've been to Asakusa before, you've probably also been to the Kaminarimon gate. It is, after all, the symbol of Asakusa.
The omikoshi procession that set off from Asakusa Shrine during the Chonai Mikoshi Rengo Togyo event will pass through Nakamise Street and emerge from the iconic Kaminarimon, allowing spectators a chance to snap photos of both the gate and the portable shrine parade at the same time.
Nothing says, "I attended the Sanja Matsuri!" quite like either one of them, and having them both in the same shot just makes the photo that much more convincing! However, because almost everyone who visits has the same idea, if you're determined to take this photo, then be mentally and physically prepared for crowds the likes of which you've never seen before.
Recommendation 4: Chasing the parading omikoshi through the alleyways!
On day three, the final day of the festival, an event called Honsha Mikoshi Kakucho Togyo (Shrine Omikoshi Town Procession) will take place in the early morning. Three omikoshi of the main shrine itself will be transported along a fixed course along Asakusa's streets and alleys.
The routes these omikoshi will be taking are put up on the shrine's official homepage before the event, so you'll be able to roughly gauge which omikoshi will pass by which spot in Asakusa at what time. What we're trying to say is, look up the routes beforehand and find an excellent place to hang out in while waiting to catch a glimpse of the omikoshi as they pass by!
The event starts in the morning and continues all the way into the night, so after watching the procession pass by at one spot, you can move right on to another place to keep observing the festivities. If you're the type who finds satisfaction in being able to plan your every move and then keeping up with them, using the information on hand to find the best routes and check out places to visit while pursuing the omikoshi may be an activity that appeals to you!
The charms of Sanja Matsuri from the viewpoint of foreign residents of the area
Many non-Japanese travelers are fans of the Sanja Matsuri. From the viewpoint of a foreigner who is residing in Japan, what exactly is it about the festival that captivates the international crowd?
According to an Australian man: "There are different things to see every day, so all three days of the festival are delightful. My personal recommendation is the climax of the festival on the last day. Japanese people are known to be calm and polite, so when I first saw the fierce way they handled the omikoshi, it quite frankly scared me a little. It's definitely something worth watching! Each neighborhood community has its own set of matching costumes as well. It was fun paying attention to that too!"
Locally, quite a number of people take leave from work during the three days of the festivals, or before and after it so that they can fully focus on taking part in the activities. On the last day, when the festival reaches its climax, everyone is hyped up and the energy level put into every activity then is a sight to behold.
An American woman explains, "There's this event, Daigyoretsu (large procession), where people in all sorts of costumes parade through the streets while festival music and dancing takes place everywhere. Just watching everything go on is already so fun! The Sanja Matsuri is well-known for its omikoshi parade, and seeing all the portable shrines gathered in one place is quite an overwhelming feeling as well. There are plenty of booths selling food and souvenirs during the festival, so I personally recommend taking lots of breaks in between as you go around taking in the sights."
Daigyoretsu is an event that takes place in the afternoon of the first day. As mentioned, people in colorful ancient Japanese costumes from all time periods parade through the streets, and festival music and dances will be performed as well. You can definitely understand why our friend from America would say just watching everything go on is already fun enough!
Things to note for first-time visitors of Sanja Matsuri
If you're convinced that Sanja Matsuri is where you want to be, then please take note of a few things when you do actually get there.
First of all, toilets. In Asakusa Shrine, there are no toilet facilities available for ordinary visitors, so if you do need one, you'll have to use one of the public toilets nearby. Also, note that most of the convenience stores near the venue won't be allowing the public to use their toilets during festival days, so it may be best to deliberately plan a lot of leeway into your schedule for bathroom breaks.
Secondly, shrines and temples are holy places, and some areas are off-limits to ordinary visitors. These areas are clearly marked with Japanese and English signs, so please look out for them and respect the sanctity of these sanctuaries.
Finally, this goes without saying, but do not block or otherwise hinder the omikoshi bearers as they're moving along. By keeping these points in mind, you'll make the festival more enjoyable for yourself and those around you!
Sanja Matsuri is easily accessible from major transportation options. It is a great way to bask yourself in a festive mood. It's a bonus that this festival will be held in a vibrant town full of the olden Japanese charm. Check the routes the omikoshi will be taking on the official website beforehand, and do some research on what are the best things to see throughout all three days.
With this information on hand, you'll be able to find the best way to maximize your time and enjoyment for this unique traditional festival of Japan.
*The above article is based on information from July 2020
Temporarily changed to the following hours due to the current novel coronavirus situation:
Weekdays: 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Sundays and holidays: 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Written by Jiei Kurabayashi, Dali Corporation
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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