Festivals of Japan: Sanja Matsuri
By John Asano
On May 12, 2017
The Sanja Matsuri is one of the “Three Great Shinto Festivals of Tokyo” and a must-see festival for May in Japan. It’s one of Tokyo’s wildest matsuri; a jam-packed, tattoo-filled display of spirituality, tradition and all-round raucousness. The festival offers a rare chance to see yakuza proudly display their irezumi along with alcohol-fueled strength as they parade the mikoshi through town with a mishmash of other equally intoxicated locals.
This year the dates of the Sanja Matsuri are Friday May 18, Saturday May 19 and Sunday May 20.
Photograph by Michael Yamashita @yamashitaphoto – Be prepared for a crowd at tomorrow’s Sanja Matsuri at Asakusa Shrine, the most popular Shinto festival in Tokyo, held every year at this time in May. Parades carrying mikoshi (portable shrines), with traditional music and dancing over the next 3 days will draw 2 million spectators. #sanjamatsuri #asakusa #shinto #Japan @natgeocreative @thephotosociety. For more on Japan, please see @yamashitaphoto
Taking place in Asakusa, the festival is held in honor of the three local men who established and founded the famous Sensoji Temple.
The legend goes that a statue of Kannon was miraculously pulled out of the nearby Sumida River by two local fishermen brothers in the year 628 AD. The brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari along with their village chief Hajino Nakatomo enshrined the Kannon and it has remained in the same spot ever since. Sensoji Temple was built in order to house and honor the statue. The three local men are now enshrined as Shinto gods (kami) in Asakusa Shrine.
The name Sanja Matsuri (三社祭) literally means “Three Shrine Festival” in Japanese, and revolves around three portable shrines called “mikoshi” in Japanese that take center stage on the final day of the festival. The Sanja Matsuri takes place on the third weekend of May every year in and around Asakusa Shrine (also known as Sanja-sama).
The Sanja Matsuri gives you the chance to see one of Tokyo’s biggest and best festivals close up. The atmosphere is amazing with Sensoji Temple and Asakusa getting absolutely packed with festival goers. You can experience traditional Japanese music (taiko drums and flutes) and dancing over the course of the three days, joining in with the estimated two million locals and tourists expected at the event. For the entirety of the festival Asakusa is heavily populated with delicious yatai (food stalls) too.
The highlight of the festival is the parade of three mikoshi shrines through the streets of Asakusa. The portable shrines owned by Asakusa Shrine appear on the third and final day of the festival. The elaborate black lacquered wooden shrines are decorated with gold sculptures and painted with gold leaf. The shrines are designed to act as miniature portable versions of Asakusa Shrine to carry the kami spirits.
The three mikoshi shrines represent and honor the three men mentioned above who founded Sensoji Temple. The shrines begin their procession early Sunday morning down Nakamise-dori toward the Kaminarimon Gate. After visiting and blessing all 44 districts of Asakusa they find their way back to Asakusa Shrine Sunday evening, where another grand procession lasts late into the night.
Other major events include the Daigyoretsu Parade on the Friday and the local mikoshi parade on the Saturday. The Daigyoretsu Parade is a large 19-block grand procession of priests, city officials, geisha, musicians and dancers down Yanagi Street and Nakamise-dori to Asakusa Shrine. It is famous for its lavish Edo period costumes and traditional Japanese performers and dancers.
The local mikoshi parade features around 100 mikoshi from the 44 districts of Asakusa. The mikoshi gather at the Kaminarimon Gate of Sensoji Temple and are paraded through Nakamise-dori to Asakusa Shrine.
Location: In and around Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo
When: May 18 – May 20
- Daigyoretsu Parade: Friday May 18 from 1 p.m.
- Local mikoshi parade: Saturday May 19 from 12:30 p.m.
- Three mikoshi parade: Sunday May 20 depart 6 a.m. and return 6 p.m.
The Sanja Matsuri takes place in Asakusa around the grounds of Asakusa Temple and Sensoji Temple. You can get there easily from Asakusa Station by taking either the Ginza or Asakusa Subway line, or Tobu Railways.
Updated: May 5, 2018