The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Heavy Sunday

Kanda Festival, Tokyo

After a busy few weeks, both physically and mentally in Fukushima, it was not perhaps the best idea in the world to visit the Kanda Matsuri on Sunday.

I love Japanese festivals and especially ones that involve carrying a mikoshi around. A few weeks after I arrived in Japan I was wondering the streets of my neighbourhood when I stumbled across the local Aki Matsuri or Autumn festival. Now I was new in Japan and that day I learnt a lot of new words for the mayhem of these events: Words like mikoshi (portable shrine), tabi (festival jackets), “washoi!” (which as far as I know means nothing and is just chanted when people are carrying mikoshi during the festival) and even the word matsuri (which means festival) itself. It was such a magical, unexpected pleasure in a country that was leaving me, at that time, quite lonely, bored and poor. I could join in the fun of the festival without spending money and it had all the colour and unfamiliarity of the travelling life I had just left behind when I moved here. In short it was best day in Japan up to then and I have had a soft spot for this part of Japanese culture ever since.

The Kanda matsuri is one of the three great Shinto festivals of Japan and takes place on odd numbered years in the streets around Kanda. I had never been to it before and it made the news this year as it was returning after a four year hiatus caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku on March 11th 2011. I just had to go.

Also friends of my sons had relatives involved in the matsuri so we could really join in. Indeed I could not avoid joining in.

I have carried a mikoshi before and know from that experience that firstly they are really heavy and secondly that I am apparently genetically unable to get into the rhythm of the carry due to the fact that I am just that bit taller and my legs that bit longer than most of the other people I’m having to share the burden with. If you can’t get the “washoi!” beat going as you carry the mikoshi you can guarantee some nasty shoulder bruises in a very short while. My first experience found me under the sharp-edged wooden beams, that support the mikoshi’s weight, performing some very ungainly, bandy legged waddle in an effort to lower my shoulders to the same level as everyone elses. This of course also made my thighs scream in pain and my hips twist uncomfortably.

Those memories were still fresh when I was pulled from the crowd by well-meaning but obviously sadistic new friends and thrust under those same, sharp beams yesterday. I tried to get the rhythm I really did: I held onto the man in front and even a mumbled “washoi!” left my lips. The person behind helpfully and perhaps angrily adjusted my posture every time my head dropped a little too far or my arse stuck out a little too much. But try as I might I just couldn’t get the same bounce in my step as they could. My legs had to bend that bit more to travel the same vertical distance as theirs; there was a delay: I couldn’t move up with the ups and down with the down as well as they could and the weight of the mikoshi smashed again and again and again and again into my shoulder.

My sons were smiling at me, proud and photographing madly. Yet I was in agony. I stuck it out as long as I could: I wanted to make them proud of course, but my clown legs meant clown feet spread wide and as we moved the mikoshi around a corner I couldn’t follow the shuffled steps; my feet seemed seven sizes bigger and caught on the heels of the man in front and the toes of person behind.

It hurt, I looked like an idiot and though they smiled and said “don’t worry” I am sure my accidental removal of most of my neighbours footwear, multiple times, was somewhat annoying.

But at the rest stop the food and rink was generous and friendly. My kids and their friends had a ball. And I was free now, having done my part to photograph, up close, with my mikoshi colleagues.

Exhausted and bruised but a great day out all the same.

Images of some of the Japanese matsuri I have visited are available at my archive here.




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