The Japanese have a whimsical approach to religion. Like many aspects of the country they often just pick the stuff they like the look of from overseas and mix it in with their own. Hence it’s sometimes said of the people that they are born Shinto, marry Christian (actually they just play pretend here, replete with North American English teachers who dress up as vicar for an easy hundred bucks) and die Buddhist.
Shinto is native to Japan but ask most young people on the street what it’s all about and they’d struggle to tell you. That said they do know about it’s matsuri (festivals) and everyone, young and old, loves to get involved.
One of the biggest matsuri in Tokyo takes place on the third weekend in May in the old entertainment district of Asakusa. Called the Sanja Matsuri (Three Shrine Festival), it’s a three day extravaganza that pulls in up to two million revelers.
The festival dates back to the 7th Century and is held in honor of three Japanese men who founded the temple of Senso-ji, one of Tokyo’s grandest and oldest.
Streets around the temple are closed off and on the final day of festivities three mikoshi (portable shrines resting on wooden beams) are carried, rocked and shaken around the streets by locals dressed in traditional hapi (lots of spotty male bottoms on show). Each of these mikoshi represents the three founders of Senso-ji and the carrying, shaking and rocking is said to bring good fortune to the area (and sore shoulders for those bearing the load as these things weigh a tonne, literally!).
Up to a hundred smaller mikoshi are carried, too, including those for the kids, and amidst the crowds are performances of taiko (traditional drumming) and Noh theater as well as a bounty of great street food.
Religion aside though, most people seem to be in it for a good old booze up and you’ll see plenty of grizzled old timers sitting on the streets, beer in one hand, smoke in the other.
Matsuri like this (although not as large) happen all over Japan, particularly during the summer. If you happen to be ‘in-country’ at the time and have a Japanese contact who can get you involved, it comes highly recommended. Just bring some shoulder pads!