5 May 2018.
It’s a family affair. Even the littlest are dressed in happi jackets.

It’s a community affair – just about the entire neighbourhood attends: probably about 200 people. The elders of the shrine are there,

and the priest,

and the burley men who will carry the mikoshi. Some of the men wear long pants under their happi jackets, some wear shorts, and quite a few wear almost nothing at all.

And then there’s us. We are an eclectic group of about twenty staying at the Sakura Hostel in Jimbocho, in central Tokyo, and we have been invited to take part in the local annual Shinto ritual. We must be dressed correctly for the occasion so we’ve all been loaned a happi jacket and light-weight jika-tabi shoes.

Photo by Sakura Hostel

The ritual is similar to, though much smaller than that at the Kurayami Festival in Fuchu, which is one of the biggest festivals in Japan.

In the grounds of the Shinto shrines there are small wooden “houses” called jinja. It is here that the gods, or kami live. The kami are like nature spirits, for wind, rain, mountains, and rivers. There is also a kami of fertility, and others for concepts and ideas that are important to everyday life, such as marriage and affluence. Once a year the kami are taken on an outing through the streets – to bless the neighbourhood of the shrine, and to bring good fortune for the year. The kami are carried in elaborate golden mikoshi, or portable shrines. They are ceremonial versions of the small wooden houses in the grounds of the shrine where the kami stay for the rest of the year. The mikoshi are as often as not referred to as omikoshi. The prefix “o” in Japanese is an honorific, added to show honour and respect, and is the more formal term. To the Japanese the addition of the prefix adds a kind of beautification to the word, and to the object.

Dressed for the ceremony I go out into the street and watch as the crowds gather. Lined up ready to go are a large golden mikoshi, a much smaller mikoshi, and a taiko drum on a decorative wheeled cart.

Leaning against the bigger mikoshi are two large oval-shaped paper lanterns on long poles.

We are taught a chant and clapping rhythm, and encouraged to participate in carrying the mikoshi.

More and more people arrive until it is quite a big crowd. There is an amplifier and microphone and the priest is introduced. He speaks for a while, perhaps a kind of sermon, and a request for the area to be blessed with peace and affluence.

At last it is time to go. The big lanterns on poles lead the parade, followed by the mikoshi, with the taiko drum bringing up the rear. About thirty people are required to carry the big mikoshi. It’s heavy! I don’t help. For one thing I’d rather photograph the event, but more pragmatically I’m just not tall enough to be of any use.

Through the streets we all go stomping and clapping and chanting. The kami are paraded in style in their splendid gilt mikoshi. The entire neighbourhood is alerted to the spreading of good fortune.

Eventually we end up back where we started in front of the hostel.

And then there is food! A veritable feast! Chicken, sushi, cake, pesto penne, carrot and cucumber sticks, and more, as well as beer and iced matcha green tea.

Photo by Sakura Hostel
Photo by Sakura Hostel

I go into the dining room of the hostel and there is even more. The place is overflowing with food. And it is all so good. I especially like the sushi that are filled with pickled something. I have no idea what it is. I tell people who work at the hostel how much I enjoy it. The next day when I’m checking out they offer me a package of the pickles, but alas I can’t take it as I’ll still be travelling for another five weeks.

Later that afternoon I ride the subway and a train out to Fuchu for the grand finale of the Kurayami Matsuri at Ōkunitama Shrine.

A police tower overlooks the very convenient concrete-block fence that I stood on yesterday, so I know it’s not worth going back there. If I stand on the fence I’ll be told to get down. If I get down I’ll be at the back of the crowd and not able to see anything.

I’m not sure what to do. I wander down the long pedestrian walkway that leads to the shrine. The parade will come down this walkway. People are seated on either side in what is clearly VIP seating. Then quite close to the grand wooden doors that lead to the inner courtyard of the shrine I see a small space on the curb next to a couple who’ve set up tiny stools to sit on. They graciously make space for me and I have my spot. Yesterday I watched from the street end of the walkway. Today I watch from the opposite end.

At first I watch the parade backwards as participants file down the walkway and enter the inner courtyard.
Groups of men with lanterns,

priests in their sumptuous robes,

young men and women carrying huge long wooden poles, chanting and clapping as they go,

and others who gather in groups and dance around and around in wild circles.

Hundreds file by, each no doubt with a task in the parade to come

until at last the huge imposing doors are closed and many others wait outside.

The space in front of the doors is cleared and dignitaries arrive. There are speeches.

And then it begins.

The doors open and the first group emerges.

They are followed by musicians playing, on traditional reed instruments, the haunting music that is native to the Fuchu area.

More priests emerge carrying tridents, lanterns, banners, and the symbolic shishimai lion head, and pushing ceremonial wheeled carts.

And now at last it is time for the drums. Six gigantic taiko drums, some of the biggest in Japan, are paraded through the streets to purify the area. Many years ago the drums would battle with each other so it was an advantage to have a big drum. And so they made bigger and bigger drums until they reached the size they are today.

The first comes into view and you can see the men on top ducking to fit beneath the doors to the shrine.

All the while a man is pounding on each side of the drum, throwing his full body weight into the task. Everyone is chanting the now familiar chant eeZAA eeZAA eeZAA eeZAA over and over. The chant and the thunderous pounding fill the air.

The first drum comes, and the second,

and more and more until all six have emerged and moved on down the walkway.

The energy created by them is so powerfully charged that I am shaking with excitement, just as I was the night before.

After the drums come the mikoshi.

These are not the mikoshi of the local ceremonies such as I had attended that morning. These mikoshi are enormous and require seventy to eighty men to carry them. And the men don’t simply walk. They want to shake up the kami so they jog while chanting, and weave from one side of the walkway to the other. The entire thing – seventy or more men carrying on their shoulders a gilded shrine that weighs a ton or more – moves slowly as one large beast out to the street and through the town jogging, chanting, shouting, waking the gods. Many more walk alongside to relieve those carrying the weight.

There are eight mikoshi. I stay for three. Now is the time to find a way out of there. I can’t go down the parade route so I squeeze behind into the area where all the restaurants have been set up.

The food court is large and busy but not impossible to move through. I make my way to the street, and then move with the crowds down the street. I’m hoping to get to a point where I’m allowed to cross the street since it’s the only way I know to get to the station.

The crowds get more and more intense. I find myself in a bottleneck literally squished body-to-body and unable to move. Without the thought actually even forming I know I have to bulldoze my way through. No one is moving or can move. I suddenly charge forward and force a way through about two metres or so to the other side of the bottleneck.

Finally free I make my way onto an upper pathway to the station. As I walk I can hear the noise, the chanting and shouting, and lifting the corner of a tarp preventing a view of the street below I find I can see down and get one last glimpse of the mikoshi as it moves through the town.

It will rest at a special place overnight and at four the next morning it will be carried back to Ōkunitama Shrine until the same time next year.

Next post: A day trip to Nikko and the very beautiful Toshogu Shrine.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.