Fukagawa Matsuri

The Fukagawa Matsuri (officially the Fukagawa Hachimangu Matsuri) is one of Tokyo’s “Big Three” festivals, but seems to be a lot less well-known than Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri and the Kanda Matsuri.

Its a mikoshi festival, and its gimmick is that people throw water on the mikoshi carriers to cool them down.

This year I went to the children’s mikoshi event because it’s not nearly as crowded. It was great for photography because there were enough people to give it quite a lively atmosphere, but I could move around as much as I wanted and get up close for photos.

It’s held near Monzennaka-cho on the Oedo and Tozai Subway Lines. The climax of the festival is always on the 15th of August.

Two Obons

This is the annual festival at my son’s preschool and was held on July 17. I thought it was kind of strange to have an Obon festival in July because the Obon holidays are in August, but apparently, the festival gets celebrated at different times in Japan.
In Tokyo and Tohoku (northern Japan), it’s celebrated in July and is called “Shichigatsu Bon” (literally July Bon), but in Kansai and most other areas, it’s called “Hachigatsu Bon” (August Bon) and is celebrated on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of August. The reason is that it was originally based on the lunar calendar, and when Japan converted to the Gregorian calendar, some regions kept celebrating it on the old dates while others switched it to the modern calendar. In fact, there are even a few places that still celebrate kyu-bon (the old Obon), so it falls on a different day every year depending on the moon.

I really enjoyed the dancing and other events, and if you’re ever walking by a preschool and you see a festival going on, you should definitely stop in because it’s really photogenic. All the kids dress up in yukata and jinbei, and they’re really cute when they dance.

Gogatsu Ningyo, the Dolls of Boys’ Day

Japan has some of the most amazing dolls in the world, and when I went to visit my wife’s family during Golden Week, I was surprised to see that one of the rooms in the house had been taken over by an enormous display of gogatsu ningyo (literally ‘May dolls’) in honor of my new son.

The official name of the holiday being celebrated is Kodomo no Hi, or Children’s Day, and it comes on May 5th, every year, but it used to be called Tango no sekku, and was originally just for boys. The festival is centuries old, and no one knows exactly where it came from or how it originated, but there are some theories here.

Anyway, it’s basically a day to wish for the health and happiness of male children, and there are a lot of masculine symbols associated with it, like the above tiger and the below carp.

These are irises, the flower that gives the festival its old name, Shobu no Sekku. Irises were used in purifying rituals, and because the word for iris, shobu, sounds like the word for military spirit, it also became associated with samurai virtues.

Kids’ Dance Festival in Higashi Omiya

If you ever have a chance to get out to a small, local festival near where you live, you’ll probably find that they can be surprisingly entertaining. This kid’s dancing festival is held in Higashi-Omiya, a tiny station north of Tokyo every August. They have kids from the local dance schools perform, and I find watching little four-year-olds dancing to Hip Hop songs with lyrics about “bitches,” “ho’s,” and explicitly sexual language endlessly entertaining.

Kanchu Mizuabi, the Ice-water Bathing Festival

I’m a bit of a samugariya (someone who hates the cold), so I found myself shivering just watching these guys pouring ice-cold water over themselves. It’s part of the annual Daikoku Matsuri at the famous Kanda Myojin Shrine in downtown Tokyo, and is an ancient purification rite. Originally, it was for people who had just turned 20, which is the age when one legally becomes an adult in Japan. I couldn’t help but wonder if the hidden purpose of the festival is to lower the sex-drives of randy young 20-year-olds. The festival is open to anyone, and there were a few women and guys who looked to be in their 50s and 60s as well.

I was quite surprised to see Bubbles from the Trailer Park Boys at a Japanese festival.

By the way, if you go to take photos, you want to be in the group on the right of the pool. The people on the left and center get told they can’t stand there about five minutes before the festival starts (even though they’ve been waiting for like an hour and the so-called “organizers” were there the whole time without bothering to mention they weren’t allowed to stand there.)

Tatara Festival in Kawaguchi City, Saitama

Tokyo’s Samba Carnival in Asakusa and the Awaodori Festival in Koenji are amazing spectacles, but they’re also horribly crowded. If you don’t want to be straining to peer over people’s heads, you have to be there at least an hour before things start.
If you don’t mind seeing things on a slightly smaller scale, you can see pretty much the same thing  a few weeks before in a setting where the crowds are much, much thinner.
During the Nagashi Odori part of the festival, which is based on part of the Awaodori Festival, you can pretty much walk around wherever you want. The event gets a little more crowded when the samba dancers come, but it’s nothing compared to the big Tokyo festivals.




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Bboy Park 2009

The Bboy park bills itself as Japan’s biggest block party and has been held in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park since 1997. It’s a two-day event with music, dance, and Hip-hop culture.

For me, the endlessly fascinating thing about it is the way the guys transform from aggressive, fluid, Hip-hop street dancers and rappers into ultra-polite Japanese people within seconds. One minute a guy’s doing moves straight out of Harlem and the next he’s stiff and bowing up and down like a salariman.

There was a huge dance competition that went on for most of the day on Saturday that was just amazing.





The festival is held in late August every year. Check Metropolis’ event listings or the Bboy Park Homepage (Japanese only).

Chiba Oyako Sandai Summer Festival

I’ve gone to photograph quite a few of Tokyo’s most famous festivals over the last couple of years, and although they were great, there were times when the huge crowds made them less enjoyable, so this year I decided to go and see some of the more minor ones.
I find that they’re often quite similar to the bigger, more famous ones, just on a slightly smaller scale, and with much smaller crowds. If you want to get decent photos of an event like the Samba Carnival in Asakusa, you really need to get a spot a couple of hours early, but at events like Chiba’s Oyako Sandai Natsu Matsuri, you can pretty much just show up.


In the afternoon, there’s a parade with an awa odori (traditional folk dance), marching bands, and samurai re-enactors.

chiba firefighters3

Next is a demonstration of acrobatic tricks that Edo Period fire fighters used to signal wind direction and the progress of a fire. (See this post for more information.)

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70% of Mikoshi Groups in Sanja Matsuri Controlled by Yakuza

The Sanja Matsuri is one of the most famous festivals in Japan, attracting millions of visitors every year, but a lot of people probably don’t realize just how deep the yakuza-Sanja connection is. According to an article in the Asahi Shinbun Newspaper, some 70 percent of the groups that participate in the festival are controlled by yakuza. After an incident a couple of years ago in which a man paid money to a yakuza gang to be allowed to ride on top of a mikoshi (in violation of the festival’s rules, and apparently an act of sacrilege), the police investigated 30 some-odd groups of local residents who carry mikoshi. They found that  more than 20 of them were headed up by members of yakuza syndicates.

The festival is apparently a source of funds for the yakuza groups, who siphon off money from the associations, as well as being an opportunity to do some PR work. Most of the yakuza come from the Yamaguchi-gumi or the Sumiyoshi-kai. The original article is here: http://zara1.seesaa.net/article/47720543.html.

I’ve seen the one openly-yakuza mikoshi group before, but I never noticed that they have the name of their gang, the “takahashi-gumi” and “godaime” (fifth generation [of the gang]) written right on the front of their jackets.

The theme of today’s photos is “happy yakuza.”

happy yaks

happy yaks2

festival yaks 4

Courtesan Procession in Shinagawa

Embarrassing confession: until a few years ago, I thought a “courtesan” was a female courtier. Just on the off-chance that you’re confused like I was, a courtesan is a prostitute. The oiran were, like geisha, more than just prostitutes, though, and were renowned for their music, dancing, poetry, and calligraphy. They were farther toward the coital end of the sex-worker spectrum than geisha, and were the aristocracy of the pleasure quarters. There’s an interesting Wikipedia article about them at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oiran

oiran 9

oiran 01

Oiran were fashion trend-setters. The high-ranking ones wore these huge shoes and had a style of walking where they dragged their feet out sideways in a semi-circle. You can see it in this video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNncpdEFOB0&feature=related. The shoes weigh 2.5 kgs.

oiran shoes 2

oiran kid



oiran 4

oiran 5

The procession is held in Shinagawa and takes place every year on the first Saturday in June, and is part of a larger mikoshi festival. The procession starts at 6:30, not from the Shinagawa Bridge (as the Japan Times Festival Listings said, causing me to wait in the wrong place) but up the road farther toward Shinagawa Station. If you come to the bridge, keep going, cross the big road and turn left. I believe it’s here.