Festivals (Matsuri)

Kanamara Matsuri「かなまら祭り」- the Festival of the Steel Phallus

Japanese festivals are fascinating and some can be rather strange! I had first heard about the Kanamara Matsuri「かなまら祭り」 several years ago and finally had the opportunity to go check it out this year!

This Shinto festival is centred around the male reproductive organ and is also known as the “Festival of the Steel Phallus”.

According to legend, a sharp-toothed demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman and castrated her husbands when they tried to have sex with her on their wedding nights (i.e. these were on two separate occasions). As a result, the young woman sought help from a blacksmith, who created a steel phallus to break the demon’s teeth when it bit down on the steel penis and thus saved her future husband(s) from suffering a similar fate as the first two.

The Kanayama Shrine「金山神社」 was popular among prostitutes who wished to pray for protection from Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) but these days, most people visit the shrine to pray for prosperity in their businesses, marriage, fertility and smooth delivery.

Over time, the festival has become somewhat of a tourist attraction and is now used to bring awareness to STDs in general and raise funds for HIV research.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and even though it was a cold and wet day, the crowds still thronged the festival venue. Wow! That really tells how much drawing power this festival has!

There was a long queue snaking from the shrine towards direction of the train station and we learnt that it would take about 1.5 hours to enter (or so many people thought) – it wasn’t until much later that we realised this queue was actually for one of the candy stalls at the festival! (you can see one of the confectionery items which a lady in the crowd was eating in the picture below)

I decided to find an alternative way to enter the festival venue and did a walk around the block to the other side of the shrine and found many people entering and exiting from there! Human traffic was also being controlled (or re-directed) around the area.

It took about 15min before I managed to step into the festival grounds but it was a tight squeeze to try to look around as many people had congregated in the area, thus this meant more people were entering the premises instead of exiting! The publicity of this Japanese festival over the recent years has also resulted in many curious foreign tourists making a trip here to witness the unusual ceremonial rites.

Upon entering, I noticed many people queuing at a side building and was wondering if it was a prayer spot and so I went to have a look. Hmm…at the front were 2 wooden phalluses decorated with some bells and people were actually touching/holding them for good luck! There was also a Shinto priest busy at work and oblivious to the crowds.

Located next to the little building was this black statue, which many people were queuing to get a picture with it and so I decided to take one too. It was raining quite a bit, thus I couldn’t do without my umbrella.

Nearby, I stumbled upon an elderly lady with a display of carved radishes – look closely and you will see what the “shapes” depict.

A little further down were two huge wooden phalluses and many westerners (especially the men!) seemed to be exceptionally thrilled when they straddled them and striked various poses for their photos! At that moment, if the expression on my face could be depicted by an emoticon, it would be the one with the raised eyebrow! LOL…

There was a stage area where performances were held at various times of the day. I made my way through the crowd and was slightly startled when I saw these two men standing right in front of me and thought to myself – “what a couple of d**kheads!!” (apologies, I don’t normally use profanities but that was literally what I saw!)

As with most Japanese festivals, there were various stalls selling food and other merchandise, but the ones here were all geared towards a particular theme (if you get my drift)…

Phallic-shaped candles for sale.

There were also several foodstalls and my eyes were drawn to this one which sold grilled fishcakes, octopus, squid and prawns…

Was it my imagination or were some of the food items arranged to resemble phalluses?

There was a second candy queue which was slightly shorter than the earlier one and I decided to join the line, but it still took me about 45 mins before I made a successful purchase!

Picture taken whilst in the queue!

I had actually entered the queue without knowing what were the types/colours/designs of candy that were available at the front of the queue – the human jam was terrible (worse than sardines packed in a can!), so there was no way for me to get to the front to check them out except by joining the line (this eventually ended up being multiple lines, which added to the chaos!!) and the crowds kept being pushed towards the left or right by people trying to find their way out from the madness!

Took a quick photo of the available merchandise when I finally made it to the front! (it was too crowded and I didn’t have enough elbow room to be able to compose a better picture)

This was what I ended up buying (just for the novelty) and three of them were given to friends.

Posing with my omiyage and quick snack (octopus) before lunch.

As I had been stuck in the candy queue for the longest time, I had missed the mikoshi procession when it left the shrine, but thankfully I managed to catch them on their way back.

The procession was headed by several young children…

…and followed by some masked characters.

At the very end of the procession were 3 mikoshis which were paraded through the streets on the shoulders of the people who were carrying them.

The first mikoshi was a black one and it was carried by men.

The second one was a bright pink one and initially I thought it was being carried by women, but upon taking a closer look, it apparently wasn’t so! This particular mikoshi is supposed to help increase the awareness of HIV and people who lead alternative lifestyles. I saw many cross-dressers at the festival and this also seemed to be a popular place for the Japanese LGBT community to congregate!

The last mikoshi in the procession.

This festival was an eye-opener for me and I concluded that the goings-on were still the strangest celebration practices that I’ve ever seen!


Festival Venue:

Wakamiya Hachiman Shrine「若宮八幡宮」
神奈川県川﨑市川崎区大師駅前2-13-16

Festival Date:
Held annually on the first Sunday in April.

Access: 2 min walk from the Kawasaki Daishi Station「川崎大師駅」.

Categories: Festivals (Matsuri), Japan, Kanagawa Prefecture (神奈川県), Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Night Cherry Blossom Viewing at Naka-Meguro River「中目黒桜まつり」

Due to my tight schedule and the fact that the cherry blossoms weren’t going to last long, I decided to join the locals and enjoy cherry blossom viewing after dark!

I couldn’t get on the earlier bus from the airport and thus only arrived at my hotel in Tokyo at about 6pm. Dropped my bags, freshened up a little and immediately headed off to the Naka-Meguro「中目黒」 area…

One thing I’ve learnt from my trips to Japan is that typically during festivals or similar events, if you don’t know where the festival venue is, just follow the crowd when you arrive at the train station and most of the time, you’ll definitely end up at the right place (or look out for the festival banners/flags placed along the streets). True enough, we arrived at side of the river in no time. ^_^

There was a lightup between 7pm-9pm and in typical festival setting, street vendors lined the walkways along both sides of the river.

We decided to admire the flowers first before having dinner.

However, due to the cold weather (about 11 degrees celsius), we soon got hungry and decided to look for something to eat along the way…

This shop caught my eye as it sold steamed oysters and some sparkling drinks.

We ordered a strawberry sparkling and a mixed fruit sparkling and both turned out to be sweet alcoholic drinks containing fresh fruit! Mmm…they were delicious and a good accompaniment to the fresh plump oysters!!

The stall adjacent to it seemed quite popular with the crowds too and one of the items they were selling was clam chowder and I thought some hot soup would be good to warm the tummy – well, it turned out that I ordered the last bowl! The soup was creamy and had a generous serving of clams and potatoes.

By the time we finished snacking, the lanterns were switched off but people were still out and about taking selfies or wefies with the sakura!

Here’s a short video clip which I took – policemen were directing the traffic as the roads weren’t closed and there were many jaywalkers! LOL….

If you happen to visit Tokyo during the sakura season, do note that this is one of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in the city (I personally think it probably looks nicer during the day but I didn’t have time to come back to check it out during daylight hours).

Categories: Festivals (Matsuri), Japan, Tokyo (東京), Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fuji Matsuri (Wisteria Festival) at Kameido Tenjin Shrine 「亀戸天神社」

On the trail of flowers and festivals, I decided to go check out the Fuji Matsuri or Wisteria Festival「藤まつり」 at Kameido Tenjin (or Tenmangu) Shrine「亀戸天神社」 in Koto-ku, Tokyo. There are over 100 wisteria roots in the shrine’s precincts, and they are usually in full bloom in Spring.

The Kameido Tenjin Shrine is relatively easy to locate as there is a trail of flags on the lampposts lining the road from the JR station towards the direction of the shrine.

On the street closer to our destination, decorative tiles can be found on the sidewalk and they depict seasonal scenes of the shrine’s premises. I took a picture of only one of the tiles as this was what I hoped to photograph later:

There is a torii gate at the main entrance of the shrine and already we could see temporary food stalls lining the entrance all the way into the shrine’s premises, which is a typical sight at any Japanese festival.

Ok…let’s go check out the flowers!

This was my first time seeing wisteria and it has a nice purplish colour.

I think from afar the flowers look like clusters of grapes!

Ok, mission accomplished!! Although it doesn’t quite look like the picture on the tile which I photographed earlier, it was good enough for me. ^_^

Another shot of the wisteria against the contrast of the bridge.

Close-up of the flowers…

   

I was amused when I heard many visitors to the festival (mainly Japanese) exclaim excitedly with animated chatter when they saw the Tokyo Sky Tree from here. Anyway, I joined in and took pictures of the wisteria with the Sky Tree as a backdrop. LOL…

   

Another shot with the Tokyo Sky Tree.


There were many food stalls selling local delicacies but I was saving my stomach for a buffet lunch later and thus didn’t patronise the stalls although the wagyu beef skewer at one of the stalls looked tempting and I felt it calling out to me… (^o^)

Here’s a brief look at the wisteria and the food stalls at the festival:


My visit here was only for the flowers but for those who are interested, this is the main building of the Kameido Tenjin Shrine.

There’s a performance area located just across from the main building…

…and a monkey show being performed on the day we visited! You don’t have to pay to watch but the lady will go around with a hat after the show and donations of any amount are welcome!

  

I must say that the monkey is extremely talented but it does have its temperament as there were certain stunts that it refused to do (or took its own time to action on) and just sat there nibbling on food and staring at everyone.

  

I’ll leave you with a short video of the monkey show…


Overall, it was a nice quiet festival (apart from the sounds from the monkey show) where you can go and admire flowers, plus try out the local food being sold at the stalls setup for the festival.

Not many visitors from outside of Japan are aware about this festival (i.e. not on the typical tourist map) and it’s something that you can consider adding to your itinerary if you are visiting Tokyo in Spring. However, do check their website (in Japanese only) for the latest schedules as flower blooming dates may differ each year.


Festival Dates for 2014:  21 Apr – 6 May

Address:
Kameido Tenjin Shrine
Koto-ku, Tokyo, Japan.
〒136-0071
東京都江東区亀戸3丁目6番1号

Phone: 03-3681-0010

Getting There:
JR Sobu Line to Kameido Station「亀戸駅」, then walk for 15 min.
総武線亀戸駅下車 北口より徒歩15分

JR Sobu Line or Tokyo Metro Hanzomon line to Kinshicho Station「糸町駅」, then walk for 15 min.
総武線、地下鉄半蔵門線錦糸町駅下車 北口より徒歩15分

Categories: Festivals (Matsuri), Japan, Tokyo (東京), Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Azalea Festival 「文京つつじまつり」 at Nezu Shrine 「根津神社」

The Azalea Festival「文京つつじまつり」(tsutsuji matsuri) is celebrated yearly at the Nezu Shrine「根津神社」 in Tokyo and 2014 (5th April to 6th May) marked the 45th time that this festival has been held here, with the flowers blooming at their peak during the 3rd/4th week of April.

About 100 types of azaleas, with the number of flowers totalling 3000, can be found in the compound.

The Nezu Shrine is said to have been established over 1,900 years ago by the legendary priest Yamato Takeru no Mikoto in Sendagi with Susanoo no Mikoto as the chief deity. In the Edo Period (1600-1867), the 5th shogun Tsunayoshi relocated it from Sendagi to Nezu to commemorate the adoption of Ienobu as his successor and the 6th shogun Ienobu chose it as the guardian deity. The Gongen-style architectures (typical of modern shrines) of Honden (main sanctuary), Haiden (worship hall), Heiden (offering hall), Karamon (Chinese-style gate), Romon (two-story gate) and Sukibei (lattice-windowed wall) are designated as nationally Important Cultural Properties.

Map:

Photo Credit: Nezu Shrine「根津神社」


There are two different gates that will lead you into the shrine premises. This was the one that I entered from.

I later discovered that mutiple torii gates could be found here…

….and looking at them from this angle (below) reminded me of the torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto! (of course the numbers here pale in comparison)

Food stalls could also be found at the other entrance to the shrine but there weren’t as many as those at the one I had initially entered from.

It’s actually easier to locate the azalea garden if you enter through this particular gate (not marked but this would be at the extreme bottom of the map in the first photo of this post), as the garden will be just a short walk in and on the left.

Look for the signs providing directions to the azalea garden「つつじ苑」.

This is the view from outside the garden.

Tickets (¥200 each) can be bought from this booth.

I headed to the extreme right of the azalea garden and started climbing uphill. Although not all the flowers were in full bloom but it was still quite a sight to behold!

There were so many different species of azaleas that I didn’t know all of their names!

Can you spot me? LOL…

More flowers…

I liked this view of the azaleas with the row of torii gates.

I think the picture below is my favourite! (taken from the extreme left side of the garden)

A peek at the Romon「楼門」from the garden.

This is how the two-storey gate looks from the front.

You can take a break at this teahouse and their specialty is Amazake「甘酒」, a drink made from fermented rice.

They also sell sake manju「酒まんじゅう」, a bun made using sake lees with a red bean (azuki) filling.

These ladies are busy preparing the drinks as soon as a customer has placed an order. Note that you’ll need to return your tray with the empty cups to this area once you are done.

I ordered two servings of amazake「甘酒」 and this came with two cups of tea (probably to cleanse your palate after you’ve consumed the amazake). The amazake didn’t taste of alcohol and I didn’t really fancy it. Haha…not that I’m an alcoholic but I just didn’t really like the taste of it.

I bought a box of 6 sake manju「酒まんじゅう」 to try…

The red bean filling contained plump red beans and wasn’t too sweet.

Cheers to the lovely scenery!… ^_^

These were the seats at the teahouse (actually they looked more like tables) and it was free seating, so just pick a spot which is unoccupied and with the scenery of your choice.

There were actually sakura trees above the canopy which we were seated under but it was already the end of the cherry blossom season and most of the flowers had already dropped. We were watching this sparrow and were shocked when it found a big fat juicy worm from one of the fallen sakura flowers! Eeek! I then started becoming more conscious of what I was stepping on as the petals were scattered all around…


Verdict:
If you like flowers, it’s worth a visit.


Address:
Nezu Shrine「根津神社」
1-28-9 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
〒113-0031東京都文京区根津1-28-9

Tel: 03-3822-0753(9:00~17:00)

Admission to the shrine precincts is free but there is a fee to enter the azalea garden.

Getting There (by Tokyo Metro):
A 5 minute walk from either 千代田線 根津駅 (Nezu station on the Chiyoda line), 千代田線 千駄木駅 (Sendagi station on the Chiyoda line) or 南北線 東大前駅 (Todaimae station on the Namboku line).
A 10 minute walk from 三田線 白山駅 (Hakusan station on the Mita line).


Photo Credit: Nezu Shrine「根津神社」


Do keep a lookout for signs when you’re making your way there from the train station (i.e. to confirm whether you’re headed in the right direction), but note that these signs may not be in English!

Categories: Festivals (Matsuri), Japan, Tokyo (東京), Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sawara Big Float Festival 「佐原の大祭」 in Katori City

The Sawara Taisai 「佐原の大祭」 or Sawara Big Float Festival is deemed as one of the Kanto three major float festivals and is a traditional festival that dates back more than 300 years. The festival takes place twice a year, once in summer in the Honjuku area (on the east side of the Ono River, supported by the Yasaka Shrine), and once in autumn in Shinjuku area (on the west side of the river, supported by the Suwa Shrine). There are 10 floats paraded in summer and 14 in autumn.

As summer is the season when many diseases surface, the festival is held to ward away evil spirits and sicknesses. The festival in autumn on the other hand is held in appreciation for the good harvest and also the hope for another upcoming good harvest.

Instead of a mikoshi (portable Shinto shrine), heavy wheeled parade floats are dragged through the streets by festival-goers using huge ropes. Sawara’s floats feature huge colourful representations of gods and other Japanese mythical heroes (princesses, samurai, courtiers, etc..) riding on top of the floats. These figurines are as tall as 4 metres high and are made of wood, which is then subsequently covered with plaster. The figurines, made by well known craftsmen from the Edo and Meiji periods, are recognized for their artistic and cultural values.

I visited on the first night of the festival and arrived by boat which alighted me at this part of town.

Spotted this float and I immediately went over to have a closer look.

Wow…looks impressive! This float features a military leader 小楠公 (楠木正行).

 

The next float which came by showcases a Japanese legendary prince of the Yamato dynasty 日本武尊.

 

Entire music troupes can be found seated on the floats and they fill the streets with the sounds of “Sawara-Bayashi”, one of the most famous traditional Japanese festival music in Japan.

 

Many young people practice with the aim of becoming one of the musicians on the floats – they think it’s cool and a status symbol. Thus, they practice almost every day in their primary and secondary schools and join a music group, aspiring to be good enough to get selected.

 

The festival is also regarded for the designs of lions and dragons engraved around the base of the floats, which each tell different tales.

Typically about 100 to 120 people are required to pull the floats. You can imagine how heavy they are (especially with the music troupes on board)!

The next float features a 14th-century samurai 大楠公 (楠木正成).

 

This one is of a character from Japanese mythology 瓊瓊杵尊.

The acrobatic spinning of the floats called “No-no-ji-mawashi” 「のの字廻し」 is quite a dramatic spectacle. Such powerful speed can cause the float to create ruts in the road surface.

Along some of the streets, we encountered two floats going in opposite directions and there was just enough room for them to pass alongside each other. As you can see, the streets were filled with people and it was very crowded!

I had only managed to spot 5 out of the 14 floats that night as you never know where you’ll see the next one cos they are always on the move.

The next event which happened came as a surprise to me – we were ushered to a shop and passed these costumes to wear over our clothes and were told that we were going to experience pulling one of the floats! My verdict is that it is not as easy as it looks as the float is indeed extremely heavy and difficult to move!! It certainly needed a lot of coordination effort from all the participants (plus momentum too!).

 

Each of these floats are actually made by the people from different towns and each area has their own style. Some of the rich merchants in Sawara have the wealth to hire people to construct beautiful floats. As of today, Sawara has 2 geishas but in the olden days when more geishas existed, they were hired, together with kabuki actors to be involved as part of the float procession.


Here’s my video with snippets from the festival:


If your visit to Sawara can’t coincide with the festival dates, you can view two of the actual floats which are on display at the Float Hall of the Dashi Kaikan Festival Float Museum 「水郷佐原山車会館」 and videos of both the summer and autumn festivals are also screened there.


Like any other Japanese festival, you can usually find temporary stalls lined along the streets selling food, sweets and even traditional game stalls are available too.

You can buy grilled “Ayu” fish on a skewer.

Street scene.

Chocolate-coated bananas come in a variety of flavours like melon, strawberry, lemon and milk.

 

Typical festival food like okonomiyaki can be found.

There was also a stall selling wagyu steak!

I wasn’t quite sure if the goldfish were for sale or whether this was a game stall where you have to catch goldfish using paper nets.

 

Some interesting Japanese foodstuffs were being sold at this stall.

Even sweet potato ice-cream is available here!

I walked past this fresh produce stall and found their tomatoes were as big as apples.


The Big Float festival of Sawara

Dates:
Summer: Fri, Sat, Sun (3 days) after 10th July
Autumn: Fri, Sat, Sun in the 2nd week of Oct

Time:
10:00~22:00

Access:
By train: Take the JR Narita line to Sawara Station and walk 15 mins
By car: Higashi Kanto Expressway, 10 mins from Sawara-Katori exit
By High-way bus: Kanto Railways Green Bus from Tokyo Station for Hokota-station, getting off at Yasaka.
Keisei bus, from Hamamatsu-cho, or Tokyo-station, bound for Choshi, via Sawara: Get off at Sawara station north exit, and walk 20 mins.

For more information on the festival…
In English: http://www.katorishi.com/en-matsuri.html
In Japanese: http://www.city.katori.lg.jp/05sightseeing/taisai/index.html
Click here for the brochure (pdf)

To read more about Sawara, click here.

Categories: Chiba Prefecture (千葉県), Festivals (Matsuri), Hokuso Area, Japan, Sawara (佐原), Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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