I grabbed my camera close to my chest as another surge of people passed me. A purple pram clipped my heels but I somehow managed to stay on my feet. The shoving stopped, I relaxed and looked up. A gold Mikoshi was lifted high in the air by Japanese wearing bright green robes. Despite the obvious weight of the large mikoshi, the team bounce it through the crowds with the ease of bouncing a baby on their knee. All around I can hear chanting, `A, Sa, Ku, Sa!!!` and my hairs stand on end due to the frisson and energy around me.
This is the Sanja Matsuri.
One of the most famous festivals in the whole of Japan, and also one of the wildest; the Sanja matsuri is certainly unique.
It`s a Shinto festival hel in honour of the three men who founded the vast Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Over three days there`s mikoshi paraded through the streets, traditional taiko (Japanese drums), traditional music and dancing.
I visited on the Saturday, the day where 100 Mikoshi are paraded through the streets to Senso-ji shrine where a Priest blesses and purifies them for the coming year. Saturday is one of the busiest days and a day when local Yakuza (gangsters) display their tattoos with pride. Tattoos are still extremely taboo in Japan so this display is one of strength and defiance. The Geisha of Asakusa also join the festivities and support their local neighbourhoods.
I arrived about 12pm with a team of local photographers who all wanted to capture the celebration. Initially we meandered along the narrow streets leading up to Senso-ji. Locals were already drinking cans of silver Asahi and the smell of Japanese street food tempted me. Suddenly the swell of the crowd carried us forward and I saw my first glimpse of one of the 100 mikoshi. It was extremely hard to photograph the scene due to the excitable and jostling crowd. After a hike I gave up taking photographs and just enjoyed the energy of the festival.
The group of 20 photographers was split up in the crowd and I was alone with a Chinese photographer who experienced the Matsuri last year, so she knew the best places to go. We tentatively made our way up the steps to Senso-ji shrine, thinking that we would not be allowed up. Surprisingly the shrine area was near empty and we had a great view of the mikoshi meandering through the throngs of people outside. I even saw one old guy carrying an extremely expensive camera with his own step-ladder so he could see above the crowds. Clever guy!
Around this time the locals usually go for a quick drink, my Chinese friend said. So we headed through the crowds to the Izakayas to photograph locals drinking and having fun with their friends. As we walked down one side street, a float of taiko drummers came floating past! it was great to see everything up close.
We then met up with another group of photographers and we all had one goal in mind; find Yakuza. During this festival Yakuza commonly show off their tattoos, it was definitely something I wanted to capture. The thing is, gangsters are not known to be the friendliest of people so are extremely hard to photograph.
Unfortunately we missed the Yakuza float so had to try to capture a photo of lone Yakuza. One guy walked past and our eyes were drawn to his legs, completely covered with Japanese style tattoos. Quickly he turned and we caught a glimpse of his tattooed torso as his shirt blew open. We were all so mesmerised we forgot to take a photo. He also looked like an extremely mean guy so it was probably for the best.
Eventually we found a float with many Yakuza. They weren`t proudly showing off their tattoos, instead they seemed quite self conscious and tried to cover themselves as soon as the wind blew open their coloured shirts. amazingly I managed to capture a photo of one guys full body suit as he turned around and faced the camera. He didn`t look so happy so we decided to scarper.
Many people were dressed in Yukata or Kimono for the Matsuri. It was especially cute seeing the children wearing traditional dress or Matsuri clothing. i spotted one couple who looked like they were straight out of an anime!
I went back to the festival later in the evening with friends. I saw taiko drummers and extremely tired people parading the mikoshi as the sun set on Asakusa.
Attending a Matsuri is a must do when visiting Japan. The Japanese change from polite to raucous and it`s great to see the energy and passion of the people. Most festivals are also extremely cultural so you will see local dress, music, dance, culture and have the opportunity to try traditional festival foods.
Have you ever been to a festival in Japan or to the Sanja Matsuri? If so what did you think?