One of the most famous festivals of Tokyo, Kanda Matsuri is also ranked among the three largest matsuri in Japan. Protected by the Shogun during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and permitted to enter the grounds of Edo Castle where he lived, it also came to be called ‘Tenka Matsuri'(‘Tenka’ meaning Shogun).
The main festival is conducted in years ending in odd numbers according to the Western calendar, and the festivals held in even-numbered years are much smaller in scale (i.e. this year as one of the big years!). The rule to change the scale of the festival in alternate years was determined by the Shogun in the Edo Period, for the festivals then were so extravagant.
Kanda, the venue of the festival, was formerly the central quarter of Edo (present-day Tokyo) back in the Edo Period. And those born and bred in Kanda were called ‘Edokko.’ Eddokos are considered to be very high-spirited, and their characteristics are reflected in the Kanda Matsuri, which is a festival absolutely brimming with energy.
The matsuri actually goes on for six days, with the main attraction being the parade on the Saturday. The parade has so many participants, and its route (which has changed somewhat over the years) is so long that the entire event lasts from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The parade includes giant old floats, musicians, people dressed in old, traditional clothing, and even monks riding horseback.
This harkens back to the festival’s origins in the 17th century, when it was created to celebrate Ieyasu Tokugawa’s victory in the battle of Sekigahara, which cleared his path to the shogunate and led to a long period of peace and prosperity in Japan. Originally, the festival gave thanks to a shrine using performances of Noh theatre. Though the Noh style did not last, the performance element of the festival did. Townspeople would dress up in costume and produce lavish theatrical performances, and during the Edo period (603 – 1868) the parade would lead through the precints of Edo Castle, giving commoners a rare view inside.
However, yesterday it poured with rain all day, so I opted out of going down to check it out, and instead went to see the Sunday festivities, which involve over 100 small and large portable shrines gathering from each quarter of Kanda.
Adorned with a golden phoenix on top of each,
they are carried to Kanda Myojin Shrine.
At the shrine, each team takes a turn bringing their mikoshi to the front for an individual ceremony and prayer.
As you can imagine, 100 mikoshi, thousands of bearers and millions (quite literally) of onlookers makes for one hell of a crowded festival!!
Matsuri involving portable mikoshi (which is actually the majority of them) are always fun to attend as showing off your energy and how much you are enjoying yourself is a key element for participants.
Another thing to note is that mikoshi do not move smoothly. Rather, they are ‘bounced’ along and every teams tries to outdo the others with how much they can bounce their mikoshi.
That, of course, make the job of these guys who stand unsupported to the frame of the mikoshi, extremely precarious and demands an incredible sense of balance.
My wife tells me the government has tried to ban people from standing on the mikoshi as being too dangerous but that rule has very clearly been totally and utterly ignored! And of the dozens and dozens of matsuri that I’ve attended, I have never once seen any of these guys ever fall off, no matter how violently the mikoshi is being tossed around…its really amazing to see!
Because the mikoshi is so heavy and there are so many bearers, it has a tendency to run away under its own steam and steering it is extremely difficult. Every mikoshi team, therefore, has a guy whose job it is to steer and try and break the momentum…
And in charge of a every mikoshi is a ‘team leader’ whose job it is to lead the mikoshi and then ‘park’ it using two blocks of wood to issue orders.
But since showing off is a big part of the event, there are always some team leaders who refuse to let their mikoshi come quietly to a halt, instead forcing it to retreat, come back forward, retreat again, come forward, move a bit to the left, move a bit to the right – all one with a lot of screaming a yelling and hand-waving. Needless to say, the more he can make his mikoshi team delay finally coming to a stop, the more the crowd howls its approval!
This cheerleader was having an absolute ball making life as hard for the bearers as possible and it took them forever to finally bring the mikoshi to a halt in a manner to his satisfaction – despite there being a backlog of several mikoshi waiting for their turn to enter the temple (and in the meatnime, they are just left stranded in the crowds at the approach to the temple with the mikoshi still on their shoulders!)
Nevertheless, you can see from all the clapping hands that the crowd thoroughly approved of his antics!
But another key job he has, especially when there are dozens of mikoshi on the move and thousands of people milling around is checking to see what’s going on around him and when its his time to get going…
The other thing that’s amazing is just how they keep it up – the teams are carrying their mikoshi around literally all day and look as sprite and energetic by the end of it as they did when they started!
And its not just the adults who carry mikoshi, kids get their own mikoshi to parade