Mitama Matsuri: Festival of Lanterns

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Every July, Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine celebrates the souls of the departed at the Mitama Matsuri. As you may already know, Yasukuni Shrine is rather infamous–the souls of Japan’s war dead are enshrined there, including 14 Class-A war criminals. This has made it the source of quite a bit of controversy, since right-wing politicians often choose to visit Yasukuni to pay respects to the dead, and these visits are interpreted by China, Korea, and other victims of Japan’s WWII offensive as signs that the government isn’t genuinely sorry for the atrocities it committed in the past.

But the Mitama Matsuri is not a political event–it’s something like a gigantic summer party,  the first of many summer festivals in Tokyo. Tokyo’s earliest bon odori dances take place at the Mitama Matsuri, which has been held annually since 1947 and is generally attended by about 30,000 people. This year, the Mitama Matsuri was held on July 13-16. A friend and I decided to brave the crowds in order to check out the festivities. And what crowds they were! As soon as we exited the subway at Kudanshita station, we found ourselves part of a large and slow-moving crowd making its way toward the shrine:

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The main road through the grounds was lined with about 200 traditional festival stalls with all kinds of food (takoyaki, shaved ice, chocolate-covered bananas, etc.) and activities like goldfish-scooping (always a classic!).

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There was even a haunted house hiding behind the main thoroughfare. During the day, the stage at the shrine featured all kinds of performances such as ballet, taiko drumming, and traditional Japanese dance.

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In the evening, there was a parade, starting with the returning of the mikoshi to the shrine. Mikoshi are something like divine palanquins for transporting deities during festivals, carried on the backs of enthusiastic festival participants (see below). They even featured a couple of Nebuta floats from the famous Aomori festival. (I went to the Nebuta museum in Aomori over Golden Week, and I have some great pictures of the floats to share with you! Hopefully soon!)

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The main attraction of the Mitama Matsuri, however, was definitely the lanterns. The entrance walk to the shrine was illuminated with over 30,000 lanterns placed by locals in honor of friends and loved ones.

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As the sun began to set, the glow of the lanterns took its place, lighting up the grounds of the shrine with a beautiful and festive light. The nebuta floats were lit up as well, as they had a couple of incredibly bright spotlights going as you can see in the photo above. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in a way that does it justice!

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The large lanterns (pictured behind me above) on the path leading to the shrine seemed to be mostly adorned with the names of various companies and organizations. Closer to the main building of the shrine, there were a number of smaller lanterns with people’s names on them. Apparently, anyone can purchase a lantern to express appreciation to the war dead or to wish  for the realization of world peace. According to the Yasukuni Shrine website, they run about 12,000 yen (~US$154) for one big lantern and 3,000 (~US$38) for a small one. Or you could buy a permanent lantern (to be hung every year) for 200,000 yen (~US$2,560) or 70,000 yen (~US$896) for the large or small sizes respectively.  These are some of the smaller lanterns:

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Being that Yasukuni is a shrine, many people come to pray, and various rites are performed for the departed. This event was unique for me because you could actually see all the way into the main building of the shrine, which is usually closed up on various levels. But this time, there was lots of activity going on both inside and out.

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All in all, it was quite a memorable festival. It was also incredibly hot and humid, as you might expect from summer in Japan, and the electricity from the lanterns and the floats made the night air even hotter, so I was very happy to escape after a couple of hours of wandering around with the masses. But the atmosphere created by the beautiful lanterns and the festivities made for a truly memorable experience–I’m very glad I was able to attend, and I highy recommend it if you find yourself in Tokyo in mid-July. And if you like to take photographs, it’s a perfect place to spend some quality time with your camera!

Thanks for reading! Things are getting very busy here in Tokyo, and I have more travel coming up, but I’m hoping to post more soon! So many great pictures and anecdotes still waiting in the wings!

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