Every Japanese shrine has its own festivals to honor their gods. Because there are so many shrines in Japan you can easily imagine the large number of festivals that take place every year throughout the whole country. Many of these festivals have a history that goes back over hundreds of years. In fall you can still see the tradition of “mikoshi”, portable shrines that are being carried around town.
This year the “Akasaka Hikawa Matsuri” festival – a big fall event – took place from the 16th to the 18th of September. The festival is held every year in the middle of September, so don’t miss it if you come to Japan around this time of the year!
This year, the festival has been even bigger than before due to the fact that it has been 300 years since the famous Yoshimune TOKUGAWA became a shogun – the most important person and powerful leader in Japan at that time. Yoshimune (not to be confused with Ieyasu – Yoshimune is his great-grandson) is known for his financial reforms and became one of the most respected and well-known historical figures of Japan.
One of the main attractions of the “Akasaka Hikawa Matsuri” is the “Shinkosai” parade. The participants who all wear clothes of samurai and aristocrats of that time start at the Akasaka Hikawa shrine and parade through the neighborhood of Akasaka. The parade begins at 9 in the morning and goes on until 5 in the evening. In old times, the shogun himself participated in this parade. Today, there is also a famous person riding on a horse around town. This year, it was the comedian Ken MATSUDAIRA.
By the way: anyone can join in the parade! And it’s free, too. It’s great fun to join in with the locals and walk right next to happy and excited children. Why are they so excited? That’s because they are allowed to help pull the “dashi” wagon, a tall, decorated wagon. Well, in fact, it’s us adults who have to pull the ropes attached to the wagon really hard to make it move…but shhh, that’s our secret!
As I mentioned in the beginning, depending on the day there are also “mikoshi” (portable shrines) involved in this festival. The day I went to see the parade was a “wagon day”, so I didn’t see the “mikoshi”. Because it was a stable wagon (at least compared to the portable shrine), there were people playing music and even dancing on it!
These types of festivals are a rare chance to see traditional Japanese dances, music performances, and costumes for free.
After the parade was over, I went to the Akasaka Hikawa shrine to see the colorful booths of the vendors, buy something to eat and dive right into the crowd of locals. In the middle of all, there was a big stage decorated with Japanese lanterns. In Japan, people come together and dance the so-called “bon-odori” (“bon” dance) in a circle around the stage.
On the stage, musicians play live music and beat the rhythm on their big drums. Of course, everyone can join! Even if you don’t know the dance: join! It’s not difficult at all. Just copy what the people around you do and you’ll be just fine.
I have seen people dancing the bon dance many times, but until this time I didn’t join them. So this time I did and I really regret that I didn’t dance the times before because it was so much fun! There was a lady wearing a Yukata right in front of me. She seemed like she knew what she was doing so I copied her. After dancing just one time around the stage I was just as good as she was!
Also, besides of the Azabu-juban summer festival, this festival is also really easy to join as a foreigner. There are many embassies and offices of international companies around Roppongi, Azabu-juban, and Akasaka, so locals are used to seeing foreigners and enjoy celebrating together with them. I included, one-third of the crowd seemed to come from somewhere abroad. Dancing together – even if you don’t speak each other’s language – was a really nice experience. Also, I like that Japanese locals keep their traditions and culture alive even after all this time! They do understand that their culture is worth being preserved – how beautiful!
So, how about joining this festival next year? See you in Akasaka!!
Akasaka Hikawa shrine
AKASAKA STREET TOKYO