Tsukiji Festival the Shishi Matsuri: June 10-12

The rhythmic chanting of the crowds matches the resounding beat of a taiko drum. A giant golden lion’s head bobbing up and down over a sea of hanten-clad townsfolk. The Shishi or Lion Tsukiji Festival is one of the more raucous festivals at the famed Tsukiji Market. While this year’s festival will attract record numbers of spectators, the happy occasion will no doubt be a bittersweet one.
This November, Tsukiji’s inner market will relocate to a shiny, brand new facility in nearby Toyosu. After 80 years of operation at the current site, the inner market will also physically separate from the outer market, which will remain at Tsukiji. The impending absence of the inner market – a stronghold of tradition and culture with deep ties to the festival – will dramatically impact the festivities in future years.

Giant Festival Float – Photo from Flickr cc by Michael Stout
The origin of the Tsukiji Festival resides partly in historical fact and partly in a legend full of mystique. The Tsukiji we know today was mostly still an expanse of marshy ocean water until the mid-1600’s when construction work began to reclaim the land. However, at one spot, repeated storms and waves kept washing away the land as soon as workers reclaimed it, making construction difficult. According to legend, the waves and winds subsided after locals found the body of an inari god – protector of the harvest – that had emerged on the ocean's surface. After people began to worship the god, reclamation work on the land progressed smoothly.
To honor the gods for their help, the local people built a shrine, the Namiyoke Inari Shrine, which stands on a corner of the outer market. The name, fitting for Tsukiji’s trade, means “protection against waves” (nami means “wave,” yoke means “protection”). To this day, people come to pray for business prosperity and safe construction of new buildings.
The Inari god enshrined here is widely regarded as the guardian deity of shopkeepers and of the outer market. But not only outer market vendors come to pray. In the early morning hours, vendors from the inner market will often stop at the shrine’s gate, paying respect with a deep bow.

Namiyoke Inari Shrine by Tsukiji – Photo from Flickr cc Dennis Amith
When construction of the land was completed in 1659, townspeople celebrated by carrying mikoshi (sacred festival floats) on their backs while parading through the streets. The floats symbolize a dragon which is said to control the clouds, a tiger who controls the wind, and the head of lion whose mighty roar caused the world to obey. Every year in June, the shrine hosts the Lion Festival, in which various miyoshi including a pair of giant lion’s head floats are paraded through the outer market. The mikoshi typically rest inside the shrine throughout the rest of the year.
At this weekend’s festival, you can catch a glimpse of the lion heads yourself. A 700-kg black-toothed female lion, known as the Benzaiten Ohaguro Shishi (Benzaiten Black Tooth Lion) and a male, the Tenjō Ōjishi (Great Heavenly Lion), will ceremonially inch their way through the market. Only women are allowed carry the lioness, while only men can carry the male lion.
So, what is the significance of the black teeth? According to ancient custom, ohaguro (お歯黒), or teeth blackening, was a common practice up until the Meiji period amongst young brides and married women as a sign of stature and beauty. Thus, the painted black teeth of the female lion signify her splendor, steeped in centuries-old tradition.

Black-toothed Lion of Namiyoke Inari Shrine – Photo from Flickr cc by Wally Gobetz
This year’s Tsukiji festival will also feature Shinto music and dance performances as well as a copious selection of good eats from over 60 outer market vendors. Keep an eye out for the approximately 20 “guardians” who accompany each miyoshi. These are the men dressed in red hanten (traditional Japanese short coats), imprinted with the kanji for “Namiyoke” on the back, who have been entrusted with a great responsibility: to protect the sacred floats and carriers. Called waka-mutsumi (meaning “young colleagues”), these young men are widely regarded by the community as the future leaders of local businesses and organizations.
Join in on the fun this weekend at Tsukiji while taking part in a poignant turning point for the marketplace. Check out other festivals around Japan happening this month.
Stay tuned for updates on the inner market’s move to Toyosu. Starting this month, we will post a series of monthly articles, called “Tsukiji in Transition,” to highlight how the move will impact the people of Tsukiji.

Parade of Miyoshi Float – Photo from Flickr cc by Tokyobling's Blog
  • Schedule of key events:
    • Saturday, June 11: Traditional dance and music called Edosato-kagura (all day) at the at Tsukiji Festival
    • Sunday, June 12: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Parade of mikoshi including in lion’s head floats

  • Venues:  Namiyoke Inari Jinja Shrine and its vicinity (for parade)
  • Admission: Free
  • Access: Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line to Tsukiji Station and then walk 7 min

Simone Chen