Sanja Matsuri – 700 years of history at a glance

As Japan prepares to celebrate one of the “Three Great Shinto Festivals of Tokyo”, let’s take a look at the symbolic festival’s history.

By Sandra Sparrowhawk | Apr 18, 2019

This spring, Tokyo’s Asakusa district will once again turn into a city-wide celebration from May 17th – May 19th. One of the largest and certainly wildest festivals in the whole of Japan, the Sanja Matsuri (or Sanja Festival) is held in honor of the three men – Hinokuma Takenari, Hajino Nakatomo and Hinokuma Hamanari – who founded Tokyo’s oldest place of worship: the Sensō-ji temple.

The neighboring Asakusa shrine, which plays host to the festivities, was dedicated to the kami – or spirits – of the three men. Ever since, the shrine has been considered a symbol of peace and rebirth.

Japan’s festivals (matsuri) are known for their history of inclusiveness and community spirit – and the Sanja Matsuri is no different. For centuries, Asakusa has been inhabited by people of all walks of life.

Artisans, carpenters, craftsmen, firemen and yes, even the yakuza, all come together for this weekend-long cultural tradition intended to bring prosperity, blessings and luck in the Asakusa area and its residents.

The celebrations kick off on Friday with the Daigyoretsu parade, which sees priests, musicians, dancers, city officials and even geisha dress in Edo period clothing as the famous procession moves through Asakusa amid the sound of Japanese drums and flutes.

The parade is followed by the Binzasara Mai, a ritual dance performed for copious harvest and prosperity. Here, visitors can watch locals pray while carrying the rarely seen binzasara, a traditional Japanese percussion instrument used largely in folk songs and kabuki theater.

On Saturday, around 100 portable shrines (Mikoshi) from 44 local towns meet at Sensō-ji for a purification ceremony. After each individual shrine is cleansed, the mikoshi are carried back to their respective district, presenting a unique opportunity for local men to showcase bravery and strength by lifting and rocking the shrines – which weigh up to several tones –to intensify the power of the deities.

The climax of the festivities takes place on its last day, when the shrine’s own three sacred mikoshi are carried down Nakamise-dōri toward the Kaminarimon to an ecstatic outpouring of energy and excited use of smartphone cameras. When evening falls, all three mikoshi are placed back in their rightful place in the Asakusa shrine.

With up to two million people attending Sanja Matsuri each year, the festival has quickly established itself as the metropolis’s biggest spiritual celebration. Today, matsuris all over Japan are held to unite communities through festivals that bring together young and old, all over the country.