Our last day in Tokyo was supposed to be rainy, so my wife and I decided we’d head to Akihabara to take photos. The day before, a friend of a friend told us that the Kanda Matsuri festival parade would be taking place that same day. It’s one of the largest festivals in Tokyo and only takes place in odd numbered years; we’re unlikely to be in Tokyo again at the right time to see it. And it takes place right beside Akihabara, so why not check it out?
Kanda Matsuri Festival
The Kanda Matsuri started in the 1600s to celebrate Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600, which lead to the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate. The shogunate was the last feudal Japanese military government lasting until 1868.
Matsuri are the Shinto festivals of Japan, of which there are three major ones. Minoru Sonoda describes them in The Traditional Festival in Urban Society:
The essential motif of the matsuri is the renewal of life-power among the kami and human beings in a given life-space. This renewal occurs through a set of symbolic actions in which people collectively welcome and extend hospitality to the kami in an effort to enrich his benevolent power and appropriate this power in their own lives.
Sonoda’s paper is an interesting resource to learn more about the modern festival within its historical context. The rapid modernization of Tokyo has changed the form of the festivals, but the procession of the kami — the parade — still takes place.
The Kanda Shrine
Apart from the massive parade, various teams from different neighbourhoods bring mikoshi, portable shrines, to the Kanda shrine. Chanting and braving the crowds and weather, they bring the mikoshi up into the temple.
Kanda shrine was first built in the year 730 AD, but has changed locations and been rebuilt entirely many times. It was moved to where it is now in Akihabara in 1616, but was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Kanda shrine was rebuilt with concrete in 1934, letting it withstand the American firebombing raids of Tokyo in World War II.
The Kanda shrine serves as the main grounds of the festival. The smell of freshly grilled food fills the air, including octopus, crab, okonomiyaki, and more. You can also find mochi, chocolate covered bananas, or just grab a beer. Various musicians perform on stage, including teams of drummers. Just be careful to get out of the way of the mikoshi when they come up the main stretch.
Kanda Matsuri in the rain
The rain didn’t diminish the festival atmosphere at all. The entire festival has an exciting atmosphere with the crowds, smells of barbecue, and marchers carrying shrines and chanting. The rain only added to it. If you happen to be in Tokyo during the Kanda Matsuri, or I’d guess even the other Matsuri festivals, I still recommend going. Just bring an umbrella, watch out where you’re swinging it, and make sure your camera is either waterproof or sufficiently waterproofed.
When is Kanda Matsuri?
The next Kanda Matsuri will be in May 2019, with the parade taking place on May 11. Or catch the other two Matsuri festivals: the Sanno Matsuri takes place in even numbered years, the next being June 2018; the Fukagawa Matsuri takes place annually in August.