Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Asakusa Sanja Matsuri 2014

Note: It has been 4 months since my last post. A lot has happened in these 4 months, but believe or not, mainly good things! I finished my Japanese language school and after long months of painful and insecure waiting, I finally received my working visa (fucking 5 years, yes!!). Then through chance and maybe fate, I even found a very good and well-paid job back in IT. I will post more about that later on. But for now, here's something that helped me survive the last year, one of the best cultural experiences I had in Japan so far.

Asakusa Sanja-Matsuri 浅草三社祭

Japanese people love their matsuri (festivals). Many of them are scattered throughout the year but the most important one of them in the Tokyo area is the Sanja Matsuri, literally translated into "Three Shrine Festival". It's held for a whole weekend during May and involves carrying various portable shrines (お神輿) around the Senso-ji, Asakusa area.

Traditionally, my Japanese language school (Tokyo Riverside school) participated on the Saturday shrine carrying by the Hanagawado-Icchoume group (花川戸一丁目), which consists of members of the local neighborhood. These community organizations exists almost everywhere. Good for us students, they were more than happy to allow us to experience true Japanese culture by carrying the heavy shrine on our shoulders.

But as usual, there are rules, especially for such a popular event as the Sanja. Only people with plain pants, tabi (Japanese socks) and the official local happi (jacket) with the neighborhood mon (crest) on the back. The school provided a bunch of jackets and tabi for us. We even received the local tenugui (thin towel), which one could twist up and wrap around the head.

Tabi (足袋: fun fact, the Kanji means foot bag)
Me and my fellow student and ex-colleague Katja
(everyone thought or wanted us to be a couple)
The local neighborhood organization's towel
It was a sunny Saturday and already pretty hot outside. I had nothing but a thin shirt, short pants and the cotton happi to wear but the sun was merciless and burned down on us all. Luckily, there was shade between the narrow streets of Asakusa. The group of students and some teachers came to the local neighborhood organization's meeting point where the small shrine was already waiting for us. After bowing to the local chiefs, expressing our thanks and handing over the collected mandatory donation and Sake, we waited for the show to begin.

Truly a beauty

But first, let me take a selfie.

It was a great atmosphere already, everyone seemed excited and happy. But once the shrine was lifted on our shoulders, the amazing dynamics of a shared burden and century old Japanese traditions created an atmosphere which is hard to describe but could be felt in every part of you, being amid these people. Since the point was to make the shrine wobble and its bells ring, people did a rythmic stomping and cheering while moving forward. The crowd gathered around the carriers did their part of cheering by clapping hands and shouting. Here are two short videos I took that barely capture they awesomeness of it.

The route was across the main road towards the small street along the riverside. Hundreds of people were already waiting everywhere to see the shrines being carried and naturally, this unusual group of foreigners got their pictures taken a lot. Here is one of me that sums up my condition at that time pretty well. Happy but a bit in pain.

Turns out, with 185cm I am simply too tall for carrying a shrine. I even brought a small towel to put on my shoulders so the weight wouldn't be that hard on my bones and muscles, but it was impossible to mitigate the shere weight of it. I had two choices: push my body up and end with more weight on my shoulder or bend my knees and walk like I just pooed my pants. After trying the first, my shoulder made an audible crack and that was it, I was in pain for the rest of the day, even after trying both shoulders to balance it out a bit. But no guts no glory, so I tried to stay under the shrine for as often and as long as possible. It was just too good of an experience sweating with all these people and marching along, almost like a tribal dance.

It was so...much...FUN!!!

What was even better, we could talk with the locals a lot easier than on a normal day. Having the same jacket and belonging to the same group was really a bonding experience. I ended up talking to a very friendly guy named Ishi (in half English, half Japanese) and a cute girl named Shiho who spent some time in the Netherlands and could therefore speak a bit of German too. She was with her girlfriends and all of them together were quite a bunch of happy party girls.


Taking a break
The shrine carrying for the students was only for a couple of hours, including a short break. It ended when we put down the shrine right next to the Sensoji Temple, where dozens of other small shrines were lined up to be carrying out to the front of the temple and through the gates. It was amazing to see all these different colors of the various happi and mon. You could easily spot the Yakuza groups too. The way they moved and looked was quite telling, not just by the fact that some of their tattoos were visible.

Panorama shot, click to enlarge

There goes our shrine
Our shrine in front of Sensoji Temple

I was a bit unhappy that we had to end it so soon and return to the school. I also didn't say goodbye to Shiho, so I went back right after I changed back into normal clothes. Without the jacket though I wasn't allowed to enter the waiting area for the shrines, what a bummer. So I waited until the shrine passed the Hozomon gate and tried to get her attention from behind the cordon. It was kinda cool, I exchanged LINE IDs with a girl right in front of hundreds of people during the biggest festival of the year. Talking about attention. I felt victorious, tired, in great pain but ultimately happy and satisfied.

But things were about to become even better! Not only did I have a drinking date with Shiho and her friends along with two of my housemates on that evening, I also had the chance to participate on the Sunday shrine carrying. This time it was one of the three big shrines! Apparently for the first time foreign students were allowed to participate, so it was quite an honor! My Chinese classmate Ko (高) and I were the only ones willing to put even more weight on our shoulders.The big shrines weigh more than a ton!

So on Sunday, after a couple of hours sleep and a bit hungover, I headed back to the school to meet the school's head Suzuki sensei, Ieri sensei and my brother in arms Ko. I was there way too early, so excited! Around 10am, Suzuki sensei lead us to the meeting place which was on the main road this time. A lot of people gathered, most of them I knew from the day before. It was a nice feeling to see familiar faces again. Some of the girls we drank with yesterday were also present. I forgot to mention that drinking during Sanja is part of the tradition I'd say. Some shrine carriers were already or still drunk even. Beer cans were everywhere. I was still to hungover to drink.

So Ko and I were waiting in the middle of all these blue jacketed people, me being almost the tallest of them all, overlooking the scenery. I was definitely the only white guy in the group, and people definitely noticed. I even had a tourist couple from the US walk up to me and ask me straightforward "Why are you the only foreigner?" . Well, there was my Chinese classmate too, but he didn't stand out so much I guess. I felt flattered of course, attracting so much attention.

There was a strange tension in the air, and I soon would know why. When the shrine arrived, being handed over by another group to us, people became a bit restless and everyone tried to get in front. When the signal finally came to get to the shrine and lift it, hell broke lose!! People were pushing, elbowing, shouting, almost hitting each other. It was like a fight broke out, everyone wanted to have a prime position under the shrine, mainly at the front I figured. People were seriously angry at each other, losing all of the Japanese politeness and being extremly physical. Especially the ladies! Unbelievable! It was extremly funny to experience though. I was in the middle of these rather small people trying to push it each other out of the way with their mass but I was more or less unaffected by it. Thank god I wasn't claustrophic. So since everyone was trying to get a place under the shrine, I decided to fight my into it too and trust me, I really had. I actually elbowed a lady in the head when I was trying to squeeze myself between two people. Oops sorry...not really sorry.

God, this thing was heavy! But the combined strength and lift of dozens of people made us like a moving organism, a colony of ants maybe. Happy ants! Cause the cheering and feedback from the crowd was amazing, even better than the day before! But man, this thing was really heavy. I could only last for a couple of minutes, much to the dismay of my fellow shrine carriers. Being tall sucks sometimes. But I figured that being in the back was the easiest way to carry for me, so I got in line at the end and waited until some people got tired. That way I could enjoy the atmosphere and still do my part.

Still waiting...
Off we go!
It was packed!!
Handing over the shrine to the next group.

I'm getting into this selfie thing.
After we handed the shrine to the next group, Ko and me returned to the school in high spirits. He was just as happy as me after this awesome experience. Since it was quite early, we asked our teachers if we could hang out at the temple area for a little while longer while still being dressed up. So we went back, I bought underaged Ko and myself a beer and some food and we just sat in the sun and enjoyed ourselves. Again, whenever we saw members of our group, it was like meeting a friend and we exchanged nods and a friendly お疲れ様.

What a wonderful day it was. First time in many months that I was truly, genuinely...

...happy ^_^