Tokyo Matsuri Freakshow Madness!
Mitama Matsuri is one of the most popular, chaotic and visually stunning events in Tokyo’s summer festival calendar.
Every mid-July around 30,000 lanterns are hung in spectacular walls over 12 metres high to form an awe-inspiring channel of light along the route to Yasukuni Shrine.
Yasukuni is dedicated to those who gave their lives in service of Imperial Japan. The majority of these are of course soldiers from the Japanese military, but the shrine also honours other civilians who died in efforts to help the war effort – working in factories and so forth. According to Shinto beliefs, the shrine is in fact a permanent home for a quarter of a million spirits of those who died. In addition, there are various memorials within the shrine’s precinct honouring others including horses, dogs and carrier pigeons used by the military.
Mitama Matsuri (“mi” an honorific prefix, “tama” meaning “spirit”) is a yearly festival held to honour the spirits enshrined at Yasukuni. It’s a huge celebration, so crowded that at times one can hardly move, awash with light, music, dancing, drumming, food and alcohol. Lovely pandemonium (as opposed to the raw visceral pandemonium of another festival I witnessed the year before).
As daylight fades, the crowds swell and then the lights come on…
(click all images to enlarge)
And, tucked in behind the main strip of lanterns and food stalls, was this:
This is something one doesn’t read about in most reports on the festival – my first experience of “Misemono-goya” (heritage of Japanese traditional freak show), mixing live music, singing, dancing and magic!
(click images to enlarge)
The Japan Times describes this show as:
“a troupe of singers, dancers and musicians who, together, whip your asses back to the ’60s and ’70s, and provide an insight into how Japan pickpocketed Western pop culture and is now flogging it back to those American and European suckers under a banner some describe as “the culture of kawaii.” Deliciousweets are this phenomenon at its mind-melting, heart-pumping zenith.”
Of course, we went in. And here are just a few small parts of what we witnessed:
There’s a wealth of English documentation on Mitama Matsuri on the web.
Here’s another report with some interesting shots.
And hundreds of thousands of Japanese pages on the matsuri exist.
Update: 2011 freakshow video here