It takes plenty of people to carry a heavy mikoshi. (Atsuko Nonogaki)
Held on the third weekend in May, the Sanja Festival of Asakusa Shrine is one of the three biggest festivals in Tokyo, along with the Kanda Festival and Sanno Festival.
It became very popular during the Edo period (1603-1867), and today it features the parading of more than a hundred mikoshi (portable shrines) by residents around the crowded streets near Asakusa Shrine.
According to legend, the shrine was built to honor two fishermen and a village elder who in the seventh century held a memorial service for a statue of the goddess Kannon that the fishermen found floating in a nearby river. The statue later become the principle image of the temple Sensoji, a renowned center of Kannon worship.
Mikoshi transport local deities, who are believed to leave their shrines once a year during festivals to visit the local community and extend their protection to parishioners for the coming year.
The Sanja Festival features an ancient dance called binzasara no mai and offers visitors a peek into how the townspeople of Edo (now Tokyo) celebrated festive occasions in the past.
Even babies get dressed up for the festival. (Atsuko Nonogaki)
The Sanja Festival is held for three days in mid-May. On the first day, a parade of over 500 people begins in the afternoon. After touring the district near the shrine, the paraders take part in a ritual to pray for a bountiful harvest. On the second day, about a hundred mikoshi sponsored by parishioner associations are paraded through the streets of Asakusa.
The climax of the festival comes on the third day, when three giant mikoshi belonging to the Asakusa Shrine hit the streets. At 6 a.m., close to 10,000 people who have packed the shrine grounds rush to the mikoshi on cue for the privilege of carrying the portable shrines, each weighing about a ton. Yelling "So-iya! So-iya!" in unison, they take about two hours just to leave the shrine compounds.
Many local kids, dressed up for the occasion in happi coats and bandanas around their heads, take part in this traditional event. Preschoolers wearing this outfit are also seen watching the spectacle with their parents.
Temperatures are usually very warm in May, prompting over a million people to turn out to watch the large mikoshi, shaking violently at times, being carried through the streets. After visiting all the parishioner groups, the three mikoshi return to Asakusa Shrine at around 7 p.m.