text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Casual visitors passing in front of the Otori Jinja, the Shinto shrine in the Senzoku area of the Taito municipality of Tokyo, ten minutes north of Asakusa will probably disregard it; one more temple of the thousands crammed between the houses, the stores and the office buildings of the world’s biggest metropolis. And they will be right since the shrine appears asleep for 362 or 363 days a year, only challenging people with a particular interest in Japanese temples or for the Edo period (the Otori Jinja was the shrine closer to Yoshiwara, the famous pleasure quarters that were the heart of Ed and that has being immortalized in hundreds of woodblock prints, paintings and literary works. But if the same visitors happen around the jinja one of the two (or three, depending on the year) “Days of the Rooster” in November, the sight they will come across will be completely different.
On these days, the grounds of the Otori Jinja host the “Tori no Ichi” (酉の市), the “Bird Market” which began sometime in the early Edo period (i.e. the early 17th century) but which was moved to its present location in the end of the 18th. What is almost exclusively sold in this market is the talisman “kumade” (熊手), bamboo rakes decorated with all the items the Japanese considerer amulets or symbols of good fortune: figures of the seven gods of fortune and particularly of Yebisu and Daikokuten, miniatures of the traditional sake casks, golden oban and koban coins, manekineko cats, daruma dolls, pine tree branches, holy shimenawa ropes, carps, arrows and targets and masks of the Otafuku or Okame, a woman with a round, smiling face.
For two or three full 24-hour periods every November, the Otori Jinja is as vibrant as a Hollywood’s latest release premiere. People of all ages cram in its grounds to buy kumade of all sizes, from 5 inch ones weighing a few ounces to 10 feet ones weighing more than two hundred pounds and every sale is accompanied by a ritual hand clapping between sellers and buyers. Shop owners are dressed in Edo period clothes, the area around the shrine is filled with stalls selling food and drink and improvised open-air restaurants and people form a huge queue in front of the shrine’s main hall waiting to worship and exchange a few coins for the promise of good fortune. The only thing missing are the oiran, the Yoshiwara courtesans with their majestic kimono and their attendants –Tori no Ichi was one of their few chances to get out from the area that was their workplace and their prison.
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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