Sanja Matsuri Festival

Every year on the third weekend of May thousands of people gather in Asakusa for one of Tokyo’s three biggest festivals – the Sanja Matsuri. It’s an enormous religious Shinto event that is loud, energetic, fun and at times extremely rowdy. Here we will reveal what its about and how you can enjoy the festivities.

  • What are the downsides?
  • Where are these monasteries located?
  • Other attractions
  • Things to keep in mind

This video of the Sanja Matsuri festival is owned and created by Sharla in Japan.

How the Sanja Matsuri takes place

Over the three day period during which the festival takes place a staggering 2 million people will attend. Festivities kick off at the Asakusa shrine on a Friday from where a large parade starts. Here you will see Shinto priests, dancers, real geisha and as well as musicians playing taiko drums and flutes – many of which are dressed up in beautiful Edo period attire. It’s also the day where the first set of mikoshi ‘portable Shinto shrines’ are carried through the streets – an act which is believed to bring good fortune and prosperity to the area. The day ends with a Shinto ceremony followed by traditional dances.

Saturday afternoon plays out pretty much the same way as the day before but only with many more mikoshi’s. Nearly 100 of them will be carried from the districts 44 neighborhoods to the Asakusa Shrine and Sensoji Temple where they will be blessed before being carried back. There are also smaller mikoshi for women and children taking part in different neighborhoods.

Sunday is the final day of the Sanja Matsuri but also the most action-packed. The day starts at 6:00AM when people start gathering at the Asakusa shrine for the procession of the three main mikoshi. These mikoshi’s are particularly important as they represent the three founders of the Sensoji Temple. At 8:00AM each one goes off into a different direction and they are carried around for the entire day throughout the streets of Asakusa.

Things get extremely loud and rowdy during this procession because many people jostle each other for the privilege of helping to carry one of the mikoshi’s. Also, one of the most striking things you will notice on this day is the large and oftentimes very visible presence of Yakuza members who not only come to partake in the festivities but to also show off their tattoo’s.

The three portable shrines are back at the Asakusa shrine at 20:00PM and this signifies the end of the festival.

Origins of the Sanja Matsuri Festival

The Sanja Matsuri has a 700-year long history behind it. The festival started in 1322 in order to pay respect to the three founders of the Sensoji temple and Asakusa shrine.

Legend has it that in 628, the two Hinokuma brothers – Hamanari and Takenari, found a small statue of the ‘goddess of mercy’ while fishing in the Sumida river. The statue kept getting caught up in their fishing net and a scholar named Hajino Nakatomo pointed out that the statue was the ‘goddess of mercy’ herself.

Hajino Nakatomo converted the two brothers to Buddhism and the three decided to dedicate the rest of their lives to worshiping the deity. They founded the Sensoji temple and after their deaths the Asakusa shrine was built which has their names enshrined. The Sanja Matsuri has been taking place yearly since 1322 to honor the kami ‘spirits’ of these three men.

Other attractions during the festival

Geisha performances: If you have been in Tokyo for a while you will know that it’s not often you will spot a geisha. The city has a small number of geisha districts but getting to watch them perform is still a rare privilege for most of us.

However, from 13:00 to 15:00PM on both Saturday and Sunday you will be able to watch them perform. It’s regarded as among the top 10 geisha shows in Japan so if you want to experience it, buy your tickets and head to the Asakusa Kenban.

Taiko performances: Watching a Kumi-daiko (taiko drumming) performance while in Japan is highly recommended. The tradition goes back centuries and if you want to watch it then be at the Asakusa shrine on the last day of the festival (Sunday). Multiple 30 minute long shows are held throughout the day.

Food stalls: During the Sanja Matsuri festival you will find countless food stalls throughout the Asakusa District. One can find an endless variety of not only Western food but also Japanese cuisine. The three day festival is a great opportunity to try these foods.

Things to keep in mind

  • The portable shrines (mikoshi’s) are extremely heavy and weigh around a ton each. Therefore, it’s important to not get in their way. It’s better and safer for everyone involved if spectators watch and enjoy the festivities from the sidelines.
  • The privilege of being able to help carry a mikoshi is strictly reserved for committee members. Don’t attempt to jump onto the shrines or try help carry them.
  • A lot of yakuza members are present – especially on the last day of the festival. They usually show off their full body tattoo’s and if you want to take photos it might be respectful to ask permission first.

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Further reading

Visit the English version of the official Asakusa shrine website here.