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Glimpse into Japan's history at the Sanja Festival



2020.10.01 (Thu)

By Charlotte, long-term Tokyo resident & history-loving traveler

The Sanja Festival (also known as the Sanja Matsuri) will soon take place in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. The Sanja Festival has over 700 years of history. The festival is held yearly in the Asakusa area of eastern Tokyo, an area still rich in Edo period influences. Asakusa is said to be at its liveliest when the Sanja Festival is held. The festival, typically held each year for three days in May, has strong associations with early summer in Asakusa. However, this year's festival has been postponed due to the coronavirus.

At the festival, a dance called the "Binzasara Mai" is performed in hopes of a good harvest. Performers in gaudy outfits dance while playing folk instruments called Binzasara, which are made of bamboo or wood. The gravity of the dance allows us to imagine how, in a time where the availability of food was uncertain due to natural disasters and other causes, the people of Japan must have struggled and prayed to the gods for a bountiful harvest.

The highlight of the festival is the portable shrines that parade through the streets of Asakusa. Approximately 100 portable shrines from 44 districts of Asakusa are purified on the grounds of Asakusa Shrine before being transferred to their respective districts. Festival participants also carry three portable shrines belonging to Asakusa Shrine. The three gods enshrined at Asakusa shrine, Hajinomatsuchi, Hinokumanohamanari, and Hinokumanotakenari, are each transferred to a portable shrine. It was believed that, by parading the gods around various districts, the gods would look over and protect them. Those carrying the shrines purposely shake and bounce them with great energy. This was believed to bestow power to the gods, bringing abundant harvests, better fishing, and the dispelling of disease. As the portable shrines parade through the town, Asakusa is filled with the enthusiasm of the shrine-bearers and their onlookers.

This year, the Sanja Festival will take place on October 17th (Sat) and 18th (Sun). Due to the coronavirus it will be held on a smaller scale than usual, so please get the latest information on the official website.

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