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Celebrating a Birthday at the 三社祭 (Sanja Matsuri)

May 22, 2012

Another week has come and gone, and along with that the day that marked two months of my being in Japan. It’s hard to believe it’s been two months already. It feels like such a short period of time and such a long period of time all in one. But, when you think about it, I certainly have fit a lot into those two months! Take this weekend, for example.

Once my contract time was up on Friday the 18th I got in my car and drove home, stopping at a 7/11 along the way. It was really funny when I got out of my car, because all of a sudden six bicycles appeared out of nowhere, along with, 「へ?キャロリン先生?キャロリン先生だ!」(“Eh? Carolyn-sensei? It’s Carolyn-sensei!”). Six of my sixth graders from MES (Monday Elementary School) apparently decided to make a trip to the local 7/11 for some snacks. It was pretty fun to see them outside of school, and we chatted for a few minutes before I went along my way again.

As soon as I got home, I began packing for my weekend because Jess was supposed to pick me up in about an hour. It was Joey’s birthday on Friday, and we planned to spend the weekend in the Tokyo area in order to celebrate it. After a 4.8 earthquake (yup, you read that correctly) Jess got me and we were soon on our way to Kamagaya, where we would once again be staying at Kris’s apartment. Along the way we stopped in search of a DVD copy of Princess Mononoke, but after seeing the prices decided against it. Even though they were used movies, they still cost over 3000 yen! We each bought a CD instead. So, mission partially accomplished?

We arrived in Kamagaya at 9:00, and unloaded our things at Kris’s before meeting Joey at a public parking lot where we could pay a fee to keep our cars there for the weekend. We didn’t want a repeat of what happened the last time we stayed in Kamagaya! After a short walk back to the apartment, we sat and caught up with each other before going to bed.

It was Joey’s biggest birthday wish that we go to the 三社祭 (Sanja Matsuri) in Asakusa, and who are we to argue with the Birthday Girl when we also want to go? So, Saturday morning we got up bright and early in order to go to the festival. The name 三社祭 literally means, “Three Shrine Festival,” and is thought to be one of the largest and wildest festivals. Occurring on the third weekend of May, it is held in honor of the three men who founded 浅草寺 (Sensou-ji), also known as Sensou Temple: Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari and Hajino Nakatomo. The story goes that on May 17th of the year 628 two fisherman (Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari– they’re brothers, if you couldn’t tell) found a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon caught in a fishing net while on the Sumida River. A wealthy landlord by the name of Hajino Nakatomo heard about the discovery, approached the two and converted them to the Buddhist faith. The three men then devoted their lives to Buddhism and consecrated the statue in a small temple. That temple is 浅草寺 and is the oldest temple in Tokyo.

浅草寺 (Sensou-ji)

In order to celebrate the founders, three 神輿 (mikoshi), which are portable shrines, are brought to 浅草神社 (Asakusa Jinja), Asakusa Shrine early Thursday morning, where a head priest moves the enshrined spirits of the three men from the shrine to the 神輿. The three 神輿 are then paraded down the streets Asakusa on Friday in a grand procession. The portable shrines are made of black-lacquered wood and decorated with elaborate gold sculptures and painted with gold leaf. Each shrine is carried on four long poles lashed together with ropes. All of the elaborate decorations makes them really heavy, though — each 神輿 weighs about one ton and requires approximately 40 people dispersed evenly to safely carry them. They’re really expensive too! It cost 40 million yen to construct them. That’s 504,000 dollars, with the current exchange rate!

On Saturday, the 44 districts of downtown and residential Asakusa begin their own processions of Asakusa, parading around 100 of their own 神輿. They stop at the temple to pay their respects to Kannon, and then the 神輿 are carried to 浅草神社 so Shinto priests can bless and purify them for the coming year. When the ceremony finishes, they are carried back and paraded through their respective neighborhoods. The most important events for this festival happen on Sunday, when the three main 神輿 split up and visit all 44 districts of Asakusa to bless them. When evening arrives, the three shrines make their way back to 浅草神社 in another grand procession that lasts late into the night.

Carrying a mikoshi through the streets of Asakusa.

Since we went on Saturday, we missed the bigger processions, but it didn’t matter because the smaller processions were so neat! Even at 10:00 AM, when we arrived at the temple, the streets and sidewalks were filled with people ready to party the day away. We planned on meeting Becky and her friend Paul in front of the temple, but she messaged to say that they were running late and that she’d message again when they were close. So, we entered the temple grounds. It was a pretty warm morning, so we all bought some ラムネ (ramune), a type of soda, from a street vendor to stay cool. As soon as we had our drinks, I noticed that several cameras were starting to point our way. It was something we got used to, though, since all throughout the day we had Japanese people, young and old, stop to take pictures of us. Usually it was when we had food. While some of these people would come up to us and ask if they could take the picture, most of them tried the sneaky route and tried taking pictures when we weren’t looking. They weren’t so sneaky, though– it’s fairly obvious when a camera is pointing directly at you! We started joking about charging 200 yen for one picture. We would have made quite the profit that day had we done so.

With drink in hand, we went to 浅草寺 (Sensou-ji) to make some coin offerings to Kannon and draw some fortunes. I drew “great luck,” while Jess got “normal luck” and Kris received “worst luck.” Joey didn’t draw any fortunes. In order to nullify their fortunes and hope for better luck the next time around, Jess and Kris tied them on a special rope that somehow has the power to make them not come true. I didn’t tie mine there, since it’s not often that I draw great luck!

Nullifying fortunes

After visiting the temple, it’s only fitting that we also visit 浅草神社, which made me happy because I was able to buy another 絵馬 there! My collection here in Japan now stands at four. There were several that I wanted to buy, so I definitely have to go back! Near 浅草神社 we found a small shrine dedicated to Inari at the back of the grounds.

Small fox statues.

Inari is one of the principal gods in the Shinto faith and is the god/goddess (this is a highly debated topic — Inari has been portrayed as a young woman, an old man carrying a bag of rice, and an androgynous bodhisattva) of fertility, rice, agriculture, industry, and worldly success. Since Inari is one of the main gods, there are shrines dedicated to him/her all over Japan big and small. Many shrines will have a small branch shrine for Inari so people can stop by and pray for some agricultural success. The fox is most commonly associated with Inari, because they act as messengers for this particular god. Inari’s foxes are generally pure white, which is why the foxes in the above picture are white. Inari is a completely fascinating deity, and is something I definitely want to research more about.

As we left that area of the grounds, we stumbled upon a Noh performance that seemed a few minutes into the show. Earlier I had pointed the stage out to Kris when we passed by, but I didn’t realize that it would be utilized that day! I was in Japanese theater heaven. My knowledge of Noh plays isn’t very extensive yet, so I wasn’t able to recognize the play they were performing, Then again, we also began watching part of the way through the performance. Watching the play definitely made me want to brush up on my knowledge of Japanese theater, though, so I need to start finding some books in English on it!

Noh play in progress.

The character on the right is a 天狗 (tengu), a type of demon in Japanese folklore. Another really fascinating part of Japanese culture.

Becky and Paul finally found us, and we stayed until the performance ended, and then made our way back in the direction of the temple, and we were able to see some of the 神輿 belonging to the individual districts. We lost Paul along the way, so we stopped to get some 桜 (sakura) flavored soft cream. Yes, sakura is a flavor! It’s a really light cherry flavor, and it’s sold only in the spring. We were pretty lucky to find some in mid-May! Since we were circled up with our pink ice cream cones, we had more people come up and ask to take our picture. Seriously, we really would have made good money had we charged. We regrouped and left the temple grounds in search of some lunch. We ended up at a small restaurant a bit further away from the hustle and bustle, and sat for a while to enjoy our food and the air conditioning. After lunch we got on the train to meet Kate (who we met at our last stay in Kamagaya) and Debs (we hadn’t met yet) in Ueno. We thought it would be nice to scope out a place in the park and just sit and enjoy the lovely weather. It was wonderful, and we sat and talked for hours.

We did have a strange old man come and decide to take a nap behind us a few hours into our stay at the park. He stopped and stared at us first before choosing his spot and conking out. After a long nap, he woke up and came up to us to stand behind Jess and then Kate, holding a finger to his lips to tell us not to say he was behind them (we let them know). We were all very weirded out, especially when he decided to go back to his nap. Becky and Paul were lucky, because they left to go home while he was still sleeping. We decided that it was time to move on, and headed to Tokyo Station for dinner and this hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant located under the train tracks that was absolutely amazing. For a small restaurant, it definitely was popular. There was a list of names, so we added ours and went next door to grab a pre-dinner drink. After a 40 minute wait, we sat down though we did have to be separated. So, we somehow ended up divided by country– Jess, Kate, and I were at one table while Debs, Kris, and Joey were at the other. We kept making jokes throughout dinner. After eating we got back on the train and headed for Kamagaya. We went to Kate’s apartment for a short while, but then headed to Kris’s to go to bed. We definitely had a big day!

Sunday morning came a little late, since we slept in a bit, but we got up and to go to Tsudanuma in search of a BIC Camera, which is a giant electronics store. Kris hopes to purchase a digital SLR soon, so we wanted to see what was being sold. I especially wanted to go so I could start getting ideas for when it’s my turn to buy one! The store turned out not to be in Tsudanuma, but we stopped in a bookstore called Maruken, which was a very dangerous thing to to. There were sections filled with Japanese learning textbooks and workbooks and a whole other section right next to it filled with books about various aspects of Japan (history, culture, art, literature, drama, et cetera) all written in English. It was my whole college major in one chunk of the aisle! There literally were hundreds of dollars’ worth of books that I wanted to buy, but I restrained myself and only bought four– a dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar, a book of Japanese fairytales, a book on Japanese onomatopoeia, and a book called 233 Culture Code Words. I was glad, though, to see that the others were as torn and excited to be in this section as I was! I told Kris that we may have to make it a tradition to go to that bookstore when we visit him, so we can buy more books! I saw books of Noh and Kabuki plays, so I definitely want to go back and get those.

We got a message from Kate and Debs that they were nearby, so we met up with them after replenishing our money stores. Everyone was hungry, so we went to a pasta restaurant for lunch. Kate and Debs pulled our pencils and paper they just purchased and offered each of us some paper and a pencil. All six of us got busy drawing– much to the amusement of our servers. They took turns serving us so they could catch a glimpse of what we were drawing. Even the chef got in on it! We pretended not to notice that they would watch us from their posts behind the half-wall separating us from their area, though we also really wanted to try talking to them. We ended up not talking, but hopefully we made their day a bit brighter! At least we made their work shift a little less boring.

Since time was of the essence, we had to start going back toward Kamagaya in order to pack up our things and head back in the direction of Koga. We did stop along the way to see the 鎌ケ谷大仏 (Kamagaya Daibutsu), which is the smallest 大仏 (daibutsu), literally meaning “big Buddha,” in Japan. I forgot to take out my camera, so I didn’t get a picture of it! Maybe Jess will let me steal hers.

We packed up once we got to Kris’s apartment, and we said goodbye to Joey as she set off for her three-hour drive home. We still wanted to go to a BIC Camera, so Kris got in our car and we all drove to Kashiwa where there certainly was a store. I took some good mental notes as Jess and Kris talked about cameras. I can’t wait until I have enough money to buy my own!

Monday morning I went to school as usual, and I was very confused to see so many cars at my school. Then I saw a great number of people standing on the playground (students, teachers, and parents alike). But then I realized that they were all holding dark glasses and screens up to their faces and it suddenly clicked. I completely forgot that there was going to be a solar eclipse Monday morning! The vice principal appeared out of nowhere and handing me a small screen to look through. Although I’ve seen a couple of lunar eclipses, this was my first solar eclipse! It was an annular eclipse, which occurs when the sun and moon are exactly aligned, but the apparent size of the moon is smaller than that of the sun so the eclipse appears as a very bright ring. This type of eclipse is called 金環日食 (kinkannisshoku) in Japanese, which literally means “gold ring sun [eat/meal].” Pretty awesome, right? I decided that day that I was going to scrap my planned warmup activity for the week and play Pin the Moon on the Sun with the students. One student is blindfolded, and the others have to direct him or her by saying “up,” “down,” “left,” and “right” in English. It’s surprisingly popular! Maybe I’ll have to devise reincarnations of the game to introduce in later weeks!

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