Many traditional festivals, whichever they are local small ones or big ones in tourist spots, are held in July and October in Japan. But I just talked about the big Kanda Festival in early May, and this post is about a big festival in May again.Sanja Festival is held in a super major tourist spot in Tokyo – Asakusa.
|Sanja Festival Parade through Kaminari-mon Gate, the icon of Asakusa|
Asakusa is always a fun place to visit, but it’s more exciting when there is a festival than normal days. If you are really planning a trip in your limited travel schedule, I believe you want to know event calendar in advance. (Ongoing & upcoming events are on the top page of Tokyo Direct Guide. There is a Tokyo Event Calendar, too.) At least, I get the event info of the place when I travel – I want to see more of its culture!
And I believe that Sanja Festival is very interesting to see – It’s a must if you are traveling in Tokyo on the 3 days!
Sanja Festival is on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday near 17 & 18 May every year.
It is said that Sanja Festival is originated from a local festival based on a myth, or kind of a folk tale, in 1312. People perform traditional dances for prayer.
Difference between Shrine and Temple in Japan
Back to basics. Let’s make it clear before jumping into the exciting festival. Temples and shrines are Completely DIFFERENT in Japan. How?
When you come across a temple on my sites and other guidebooks, it is a Buddhist temple.
On the other hand, a shrine (jinja or jingu in Japanese) means a shrine of Japanese animism (shinto in Japanese.) Ancient Japanese people used to pray for the nature. Not a specific god, they believed in spirits of nature everywhere around. In forests, rivers, seas… not only the notion, but they saw a spirit in a particular thing such as a specific tree, the oven in his house, etc.
Then, in the 6th century, Buddhism was instructed to Japan through Korea. Japanese people praised and started to respect Buddhism as honorable teachings to live in good ways from the far land of India. Buddhism spread and many temples were built.
Since then, there have been both shrines and temples in Japan. (Incidentally, Christianity came to Japan in the 16th century. There are not many Christians in Japan, but there are, especially in the regions such as Nagasaki, where the missionaries and foreign traders used to stay.)
Temples and shrines look similar because of the architecture. Some Japanese festivals such as Setsubun in February are held in both of them. I try my fortune by getting a written oracle (omikuji) in both. And the two cultures sometimes got mixed up in the history, so we sometimes see unique mixtures. But when back to the origins, the minds are completely different from each other.
Sanja Festival is held in Asakusa Shrine. It’s a festival of shrine, but these two places border each other.
See this, the big building on the left is Sensoji Temple and the torii gate with Sanja Festival flags on the right is Asakusa Shrine. Too close.
|Sensoji Temple & Asakusa Shrine – Literally neighboring…|
So some dances and parades are performed in Sensoji Temple. …It is not a cultural reason.
The Parade Cannot Be More Exciting!
On the first day, parades starts at 13:00. People in traditional costumes arrive at Asakusa Shrine at 14:00 and the traditional dances starts.
It’s a bit funny that the iconic lantern of Kaminari-mon Gate is half closed for the parade!
|Half closed so that people in the parade won’t hit their heads!|
They go straight Nakamise Street toward Sensoji Temple… and Asakusa Shrine.
Many Asakusa locals run this big festival. When I say “priests” in a festival in a shrine, it’s shinto priests, not Buddhist priests.
|Asakusa locals and shinto priests|
Personally it’s very interesting to see these dancers.
They are binzasara dancers who perform for Asakusa Sanja Festival. It is officially registered as a cultural asset of Tokyo.
…Surprisingly, sometimes a wagon appears from a different direction – The route of the parade changes a bit every year.
Real geishas in Asakusa take part in Sanja Festival.
|Geishas in Asakusa Sanja Festival|
And personally, the next is the most interesting in the parade…
They are egret (white heron) dancers!
|Egret dancers at Asakusa Sanja Festival – they are in bird costumes!|
The origin of Sanja Festival has something to do with a tale of boats and ships, so dances of water birds are performed at the shrine.
Sanja Festival lasts 3 days. Mikoshi (portable shrine) parades are held in Asakusa Shrine and Sensoji Temple. In the afternoon and the evening, we can see traditional dances and mikoshi ceremonies.
|Lanterns of Sanja Festival|
I believe you now understand Sanja Festival is definitely a must-see! Which performers were the best for you?
Asakusa Sightseeing Guide – An All-in-One travel guide to Asakusa. Descriptions, how to get to Asakusa, Google maps, photos, must-sees, hotels to book, and events.