Sanja Matsuri: What Is It and How to Celebrate?

Published June 17th, 2022

Summer is one of the most anticipated seasons worldwide. In Japan, as well, many look forward to the warmer weather. Summer in Japan is one of the most exciting times of the year.

One festival that kicks off the start of the summer season in Japan is the Sanja Matsuri, taking place in May. This takes place at the capital city Tokyo over a three-day period. Both locals and tourists alike clear up their schedule to attend this big occasion.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what exactly Sanja Matsuri is, how it came about and how you can celebrate it like a local!

What is Sanja Matsuri?

One of the biggest festivals in all of Japan takes place in Tokyo at the start of May. This festival is called the Sanja Festival (三社祭, Sanja Matsuri). This annual festival can be found in the Asakusa district and almost two million visit the neighborhood over the three days this festival is held.

The Sanja Matsuri is held to celebrate the three founders of Sensoji Temple, one of the oldest temples in the country. About a hundred portable shrines known as the mikoshi (神輿) are paraded around the 44 districts of the neighbourhood by participants that carry them on their shoulders. These shrines are believed to have Shinto deities placed in them and they’re brought around to spread luck and fortune to people and businesses. Out of the hundreds of shrines, there are three big ones, which belong to the Asakusa Shrine next to Sensoji.

The paraded mikoshi will be bounced up and down and thrown side to side. This motion is known as tamafuri (球ふり) and has been done for centuries. If it’s done at a festival, the locals believe they will be blessed in terms of great harvests and improved health.

Other than the parade of shrines, food and drinks stalls as well as entertainment stalls are set up on the streets. Music of Japanese drums and flutes are also performed to accompany this parade of shrines.

What the participants of the event wear

One of the highlights of this festival is the cool things that the participants wear. There are a few different mikoshi teams, and each team wears a different hanten (反転) coat. This is a short traditional coat that is thicker than a normal one. That’s because the participants have to carry the shrine on their shoulders.

Underneath the coat, they wear the fundoshi (褌). This is a traditional Japanese undergarment that adds support and comfort.

The outfit is topped off with a traditional tabi (たび). This is a special kind of boot. Put on a hachimaki (鉢巻) headband and they’re good to go.

When is Sanja Matsuri?

The Sanja Matsuri is usually held in the third weekend of the month for three days (Friday to Sunday).

In 2022, the Sanja Matsuri was held from May 21st to May 22nd. However, because of the pandemic, it was on a reduced scale with only the three mikoshi paraded around. Instead of three days, it was only two days this year.

History of Sanja Matsuri

Image Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Sanja Matsuri is one of three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo. Some believe the festival started taking place in 1649. This was when the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu ordered the construction of Asakusa Shrine. Some others believe the celebration has been going on since 1312, but it was only every other year until 1649.

The shrine is dedicated to brothers Takenari and Hamanari Hinokuma, as well as their friend, Matsuchi Hajino. These three people, known as “Sanja-sama”, established the Sensoji Temple in 628.

How to Celebrate Sanja Matsuri

Image Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

It’s okay if you missed the Sanja Matsuri in 2022, since the borders have yet to open fully. Not to fret, it’s the best time to prepare for the festival in 2023. So let’s take a look at what exactly goes down in the three days so we can learn how to celebrate the festival like a local!

Friday - Day 1

On Friday, the first day of the festival, the head priest of Asakusa Shrine performs a ritual to invite spirits of the Sanja-samba into the three big mikoshi. At 1PM, temple priests, city officials, geishas, musicians and dancers wear traditional costumes and walk through the streets of Asakusa.

Afterwards they head to the shrine for a brief Shinto ceremony. They pray and dancers perform the binzasaramai (びんざさらまい) dance that’s accompanied by traditional Japanese percussion instruments (びんざさら, binzasara).

Then, in the late afternoon, the giant mikoshi are paraded through the streets. This is the best time to get up close and personal with the mikoshi as the crowd won’t be as big on this day.

Saturday - Day 2

The second day of the festival kicks off at noon with about a hundred small mikoshi carried throughout the neighbourhood. These are neighbourhood mikoshi. Each mikoshi has their own team of about 60 people carrying it and cheering in unison to each other. People shout “wasshoi! Wasshoi!” to encourage the crowd and each other.

These mikoshi include small ones for children. Kids of all ages and sizes can participate in this. Even toddlers can play with the taiko drums that are mounted on a cart! If you’re going to the festival with kids, this can be an enjoyable and interactive experience for your family.

At the end of this day, the teams gather at Asakusa Shrine and end their day with drinks.

Sunday - Day 3

The last day starts in the morning at 6AM. At the shrine, the teams from the previous day gather and some get to carry the big three mikoshi. It’s very competitive among the teams for who gets to carry the mikoshi. Because of that, visitors aren’t allowed to observe this.

By 8AM, they depart the shrine and travel around Asakusa in separate routes and return back to the shrine in the evening at 6 or 7PM. Sometimes the remaining small mikoshi of the teams from the previous day will parade around as well.

Celebrate with food

One of the main highlights of this festival for many people is the food. This is available at stalls on the streets of the neighbourhood. You get your typical yakisoba (焼きそば, fried noodles) and yakitori (焼き鳥, meat skewers).

But you definitely can’t miss out on Asakusa-exclusive delicacies like kibi-dango Azuma (吉備団子あずま), known to date back over two centuries ago. This is made out of millet powder and sweet rice, then coated with soybean flour.

Let’s celebrate this Shinto event!

Doesn’t this festival sound like so much fun? Why don’t you plan your Japan trip next year to include attending this event?

If you like this kind of content, check out the Nihongo Master Podcast. We discuss fun and exciting facts about Japanese culture, as well as offer bite-sized grammar points!