text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The legend goes that about 1300 years ago, while fishing in the Sumida river (one of the rivers that flow through Tokyo) two fishermen found caught in their net a small golden statue of the Buddhist “deity” Kannon and that a rich man living in the area converted them to Buddhism and encouraged them to consecrate the statue in a small temple of that same area. The temple was Sensoji of today’s Asakusa and the three men became symbols and are enshrined in the Shinto shrine close to Sensoji, the Asakusa Jinja; the shrine’s emblem is three nets commemorating the way the statue was found. And the peak of the area’s worship to the founders of both Asakusa Jinja and (effectively) Sensoji, is the Sanja Matsuri, one of the biggest folk fairs in Tokyo.
All these are the technical part, though. And there is no way they can convey the atmosphere of the Sanja, on the third week of each May and especially on the third weekend of the month, when the fair reaches its climax with the three omikoshi of the Asakusa Jinja (one for each of the honored persons) being paraded around the streets carried by huge crowds and blending with about a hundred more omikoshi from smaller jinja of the wider Asakusa area and their crowds. The crowds of the “ren” the “crew” of each omikoshi alone would be enough to drown the rather small Asakusa area, but the thing doesn’t end there: tens of thousands of residents of the area accompany the omikoshi and mingle with hundreds of thousands of (mostly Japanese) tourists, street vendors selling foods, drinks and toys, itinerant musicians, jinriksha runners, yakuza, swindlers, geisha, jugglers, priests, prostitutes, photographers, local beauties and dandies, beggars, madmen and pretty much anything else.
Shouts, music, laughs, improvised bars and restaurants, colors in clothes and paper lanterns, songs, drums, souvenirs, smells of foods and sweets become a farrago that attacks the senses and overwhelms them; unconsciously, you start following a crowd, getting squashed in narrow streets, hugging strangers and striking conversations with them as if you knew them all your life, drinking from glasses and bottles that just appear in front of you and yelling cries of encouragement in an incomprehensible language, centuries older than the Japanese spoken everyday in the offices of the Marunouchi skyscrapers. While moving you can’t think of anything; it’s only when you stop and you sit down for a smoke and a breath that comes the realization: the spirit of Tokyo may have moved to Sinjuku but its heart keeps on pounding next to the river.
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.