A festival for a rebel

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text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis

The realization that Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri  is not included in the “Three Great Shinto Festivals of Edo” was too hard for someone who, like me feels this area as the center of Edo’s culture and the starting-point and treasury of everything related to the city’s history. Unfortunately, it is true: because of the unique, albeit very common for the Japanese’s syncretic approach to religion, relationship between the Buddhist temple Sensoji and the Shinto shrine Asakusa Jinja, the Sanja Matsuri is not considered a “pure” Shinto festival and, despite its size and its importance for Tokyo (of yesterday as well as of present-day) it is absent from the triad “Kanda Matsuri-Sannosai-Fukagawa Matsuri” the big festivals celebrated in the wards of Chiyoda (the former two) and Koto (the latter).

Arguably, the most important of these three festivals is the first, the Matsuri honoring the deities enshrined in the Kanda Myojin (神田明神) shrine on a hill next to the famous (for different reasons) Akihabara, the metropolis of everything electronic and of manga comics. Very important for the financial life of the citizens of Edo, since it hosts the deities Ebisu  (恵比寿) and Daikokuten (大黒天), two of the Shichifukujin (七福神) or “Seven Gods of Good Furtune”, Kanda Myojin is also related to the country’s history since the other kami it hosts is one of its most controversial figures: Heian period (794-1185) samurai Taira no Masakado  (平将門), a rebel against the imperial court and, most probably, the man who set in motion the events that would lead to the rise and domination of the warriors’ class in the centuries that followed.

Institutionalized by Tokugawa Ieyasu to celebrate his victory in Sekigahara in 1600, the Kanda Matsuri’s processions had the rare privilege to be allowed to pass through the shogun’s palace in the Edo castle; still, it is said that Ieyasu was afraid enough of Masakado’s ghost to have the shrine’s location changed and move to where it is today. Although many of its particular characteristics have vanished –the Noh theater performances aren’t being held and most of the “dashi” (山車) the huge floats that used to parade around the area have being destroyed by earthquakes, fires and the 1945 bombings- the festival is still one of Tokyo’s most important folk events and every two years (it is held biennially, alternating with the other big festival, the Sannosai) the streets of Kanda, Nihonbashi, Akihabara and Otemachi fill with tens of omikoshi and thousands of people who, with loud cries, music, drink and food, celebrate the coming spring and, perhaps unconsciously, pay tribute to a man who went against the current.

 

Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. 

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