Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa

Having lived in Japan for a year to date, I have become accustomed to being amazed and filled with awe by the various aspects of local customs and the intricate cultural details that the Japanese hold dear to their hearts and spirits. But I have to admit that it has been a little while since the last time I was struck by this sense of wonderment.

Crowds at the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa -- Photo by Diego Rojas
And although in my life I’ve experienced a good share of joyful carnivals and festivals – Easter processions and the Barranquilla Carnival in Colombia, Holy Week in Lorca, Spain, the “Murgas” in Buenos Aires, Awa Odori in Suginami, Japan – last weekend I got to experience the very intense and colourful day 3 of the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa, right in the traditional heart of Tokyo.

Mikoshi at Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa -- Photo by Diego Rojas
I was aware of this festival’s importance in the Shinto world and its popularity both among locals and tourists. The festival takes place on the third weekend of May every year at Asakusa Shrine. And this being day 3 (apparently the best day), I decided to get ahead of the crowds and arrived bright and early thinking that I would get the best viewpoint of the events. But as I’ve learned, in Japan, whenever you think you are early and have beaten others to the front row, there’s always someone earlier and closer to the action than you. Thus, it was a bit challenging to get a good shot as the Mikoshi (portable shrine) were being brought out of the Asakusa Jinja (main shrine) and paraded around for the enjoyment of the worshipers. Nevertheless, I managed to get a glimpse of the excitement and feel the euphoria in the air.

Leading the procession at Sanja Matsuri -- Photo by Diego Rojas

The procession at Sanja Matsuri -- Photo by Diego Rojas
But I was on a quest to get right up-close to the action. The fun was just getting started, so I wandered around Senso-ji in search of a better spot and the front row ticket to the three main Mikoshi. As I walked around, I crossed paths with locals dressed up for the occasion wearing colour-coordinated attire (traditional Japanese garbs, white Ikitabi or split toe shoes, and rolled-up head scarves) and the pride of being the men and women responsible for the feat that had began an hour earlier and was to continue throughout the day… competing with neighboring groups to get the honor of carrying and jostling around town one of the three Mikoshi. I began to get a sense of the emotion that Sanja Matsuri conjures up in these men and women and then realized that I was slowly immersing myself deeper into a very significant aspect of the Japanese culture. I finally found the front row spot I was searching for and got to see the worshipers as they exited the temple grounds, some already exhausted and others ready for more; then I realized that this was merely the beginning of what was about to come.

Women leading the procession at Sanja Matsuri -- Photo by Diego Rojas
With the drums beating and the chants getting louder and louder, I saw a Mikoshi approaching. The crowd grew larger and the euphoria began to rise. One of the three main characters of this whole spectacle was now out on the street, carried in fervor for the public to see. I was in the thick of it and feeling the emotion that these men and women were displaying. I followed the crowd around the streets of Asakusa as the Mikoshi was passed on from sector to sector with the blessing of those who appeared to be the spiritual leaders of each community. The day's festivities were reaching a climax…or so I thought. I felt a sense of accomplishment and joy as I not only got the photos I was hoping to get but I also experienced the intensity of the festival among locals and as close as I possibly could.

Musicians in the procession at Sanja Matsuri -- Photo by Diego Rojas
So I left the parade walking back to Asakusa Station ready to bid this “matsuri” good bye, but at around 10:30 am, as I made my way through an area usually flooded with tourists, I saw that the locals had reclaimed it (if only for the festival) and had started gathering slowly in the Izakayas adorning the historic streets of the neighbourhood. Then it dawned on me that this was where the festival unfolded. People rejoicing, cooling down from the piercing morning sun with a “nama biiru” (pint of beer), cheering each other on as another large group of worshippers prepared to begin the pilgrimage with a ton of holiness on their shoulders. Another Mikoshi awaited its tour around the area and onlookers got ready to enjoy another round of jubilation. The chants restarted and the streets were filled with emotion once again, and for a few minutes, I went into my own trance and began to feel as if I had been transported to another world. This whole experience, as great as it was, felt surreal.

A round of cold beers after carrying the Mikoshi -- Photo by Diego Rojas

Exhausted faces after successfully passing on the Mikoshi to the next group -- Photo by Diego Rojas
Afterwards, as I made my way back to reality, I thought about the experience and came to the personal conclusion that Sanja Matsuri, as religious as it may be, is not only about carrying the Mikoshi and connecting with one’s spiritual side. It is also the chance to share a laugh with close friends, to disconnect from everyday life and let loose, and more importantly, to connect with others to build a strong sense of community. This is a day to showcase the best traditional Japanese fashion. It is a festival of colorful camaraderie and joy. It is the Japan that does not want to be forgotten as new times arrive.

Short downtime during Sanja Matsuri -- Photo by Diego Rojas

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Diego Rojas