Even in a city as packed with people as Tokyo, some places, and times, are more crowded than others. So when and where can you find the largest, densest mass of humanity? Some would say the Yamanote loop line during the morning rush hour. Others would vote for Shibuya’s scramble crosswalk intersection on a Saturday night.
But before you go awarding the crown to either of those two candidates, take a look at the massive crowds that came out for the Kanda Matsuri festival last weekend.
Ironically, on most days the Kanda neighborhood would be a pretty good choice if you’re trying to find someplace in downtown Tokyo that isn’t especially crowded. Part of the capital’s old town Shitamachi quarter, Kanda sits between the electronics and anime mecca of Akihabara and the renowned University of Tokyo. Walking down the street, you’ll find such low-key establishments as curry restaurants, used book stores, and ski and snowboard shops.
Every other year, though, the neighborhood hosts the Kanda Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s most important Shinto festivals. A highlight of Shinto festivals is the mikoshi, a portable shrine that houses a deity and is carried around the neighborhood, jostling it to stimulate the god within to bestow its blessings on the people, homes, and businesses being passed by.
▼ Mikoshi on display at Kanda Myojin shrine
What makes the Kanda Matsuri special is that not only the mikoshi of the local Kanda Myojin shrine is paraded around town, but more than 100 mikoshi from other neighborhoods in the Shitamachi district as well. All of them make a stop at Kanda Myojin, though, to pay their respects.
Mikoshi are heavy, often requiring over a dozen people to properly carry. Factor in family members and friends who come to cheer the bearers on, plus sightseers who come to watch the spectacle, and the result is a sea of humanity in and around the divine parade.
とくさん (@X79Tk) May 10, 2015
神田祭、中央通りのお神輿が凄い熱気。 #神田祭2015 flic.kr/p/skKBce—
おすぎ (@meron1125) May 10, 2015
As we mentioned, Kanda Myojin isn’t that far from Akihabara Station, being just about a 10-minute walk away. As a result, the makeup of revelers at the Kanda Matsuri is a unique mix of young otaku attracted by the nearby anime shops and older residents of Kanda who’ve stayed in the Shitamachi even after their children have left for hipper, trendier parts of Tokyo.
▼ A mikoshi makes its way past Akihabara’s famed AKB48 theater.
今日の秋葉原は神田祭です。 写真は中央通りの様子です。 http://t.co/JLx90yIOr4—
ThinkFactory (@PSPLAZA) May 10, 2015
ﾂﾙﾐﾛﾎﾞ (@kaztsu) May 09, 2015
▼ Wide-angle shot shows the crowd is literally too big to get around.
シアン＊とら祭り:F23ab (@hachiman_cian) May 10, 2015
Aside from the geographic convenience of being able to enjoy traditional and otaku culture in such proximity to one another, the Kanda Matsuri has an extra bit of appeal for anime fans. Nozomi Tojo, one of the would-be idol singers from current animated hit Love Live!, is shown in the series working part-time as a miko (shrine maiden) at Kanda Myojin. As a result, fans of the character or series in general often make pilgrimages to the shrine, and this year the Love Live! cast served as official spokesmodels for the event, appearing in a special poster dressed as miko.
※こちらは2年前の神田祭のお写真です。 お車でご来場を予定されているお客様！お早めにうちのシェルターにお入り下さい！！！ http://t.co/AOeS22lGeO—
秋葉原UDX駐車場STAFFアベ (@akb_udx_pstaff) May 10, 2015
This year’s Kanda Matsuri was held on May 9 and 10, with the parade of mikoshi running from morning until night. As a matter of fact, so many Shitamachi shrines participate in the festivities that when we showed up, there was a sort of mikoshi traffic jam on the street in front of Kanda Myojin, with crews waiting for their turn to carry their mikoshi in for a benediction from the priests.
▼ Many of the bearers decided this was a good time to put their mikoshi down and grab a snack.
▼ Thankfully, dozens of vendors had stalls set up within the shrine grounds selling food and drink.
▼ The handy illustrated menu at this grilled skewer stand will let you get started ordering even if you don’t speak Japanese.
Once inside the gate, though, it’s not time for the mikoshi bearers to take it easy just yet. Instead, there’s a final spurt of chanting and rallying, before the group is welcomed and the deity ceremonially transferred inside Kanda Myojin for a visit.
As exciting as it is to watch, it must be exhausting for the bearers, though. So while everyone left with a smile on their faces, we imagine a small part of those happy expressions came from knowing the Kanda Matsuri only comes once every two years.