Shinagawa celebrates its Edo Period roots

In modern day Tokyo, Shinagawa is a neighborhood considered quite central in the city.  But during the Edo Period, Shinagawa was outside the Edo city limits.  It was a “post-town” on the Tokaido Road that connected Edo (modern Tokyo) to Kyoto.  There were 53 such post-towns on the Tokaido–places where travellers on the road could get food and lodging–and Shinagawa was the first, lying just outside Edo.  Perhaps it is fitting that Shinagawa is also now the first stop made by the Tokaido Shinkansen trains that originate from Tokyo station.

cam-IMG_4038Just south of Shinagawa station, there is a section of the old Tokaido Road that still both honors and celebrates its roots as a post-town on a daily basis, notwithstanding its substantial modernization since that time.

In its hey day as the Shinagawa post town, this section of the Tokaido was lined with inns and shops.  Most of the inns are gone now (although die-hard tourists looking to say they stayed in an old post-town can certainly find accommodation in the area), but the shops remain, probably offering an array of goods and services far wider than anything that would have been available during the Edo Period.  I’ve written elsewhere about exploring some of the area and I highly recommend doing so.

The usual inclination of locals to celebrate their history increases around the time of the Autumnal Equinox, when the neighborhood hosts its annual “Shinagawa Shukuba Matsuri”.  This year’s festival was spread over two days: September 23 and 24.  Although I was only able to attend on the second day, I heard from others that the first day’s events, especially the Oiran (elaborately dressed courtesans) Parade and chindonya (travelling musicians used by commercial establishments for live advertisements, especially during the Edo Period) performances, were very entertaining.  Having seen both of these in other contexts in the past, I have no doubt of this.

On the second day, there were flea market stalls, fresh produce stalls, craft stalls, and fair food stalls at various intervals along the road.  After enjoying yaki-tori and shaved ice, we bought some handmade tea cups and a few fresh vegetables.

From noon there was a parade that began at the north end of the road (near Kita-Shinagawa Station) and continued to Honsen-ji temple (near Aomonoyokocho station); after the parade there was the religious rite of fire walking at Honsen-ji.

The parade was an eclectic affair, quite unlike traditional Japanese “matsuri” parades.  A fellow attendee was most particular in pointing that out to me.  I couldn’t be sure whether she was making the point because she was pleased or displeased.  Personally, I found the mix of participants–advancing the cause of community involvement and especially getting children and young people involved–, as well as the visual variety, quite pleasing.

The first group to march in the parade were the priests who would lead the fire walking.  It’s hard to say whether they went first to bless and purify the parade route for the others or because they needed to reach Honsen-ji first in order to prepare for the fire walking.  Maybe a bit of both.

 

The next segment of the parade was specifically labelled that it was dedicated to traffic safety.  Participants included motorcycle cops, a children’s band, and a local delivery company (complete with their corporate mascot).

 

Next came various other local groups showing their support for causes ranging from disaster preparedness to recycling, or their affiliation, such as scouts.  In some cases, the groups–usually all dressed alike–just marched together.  But in other cases, they were dressed in Edo period costumes to entertain the crowd, or they chanted their message as they marched.  Overall there was an atmosphere of togetherness and community.

After this, we were treated to pom pom girls, baton twirlers and the local girl’s high school marching band.  As someone who spent many summer days during high school marching in local parades, this segment was nothing if not nostalgic.

 

As you might expect, the parade organizers saved the best for last–a large group dressed in Edo Period costume.  And, of course, this segment of the parade was led by someone costumed as Mito Mitsukuni, the lead character in a popular Japanese “jidai geki” (period drama) television series called “Mito Komon”, set in the 17th century.  In the television program, Mito, grandson of the first Tokugawa shogun and uncle of the current shogun, travels throughout the country in cognito righting wrongs where he finds them.

 

Then came people dressed as characters from many walks of life in the Edo Period, ranging from hotel maids and rickshaw pullers to various sorts of peddlers.

 

Then townspeople and courtesans.

 

What display of Edo Period costuming would be complete without some warriors?

 

And perhaps rapscallions and fallen women?  Would you gamble with either of these?

 

But there was also an entire group representing literal flowers, wearing plain kimonos with remarkable obi, tied to resemble flowers.

 

The parade was clearly a crowd pleaser, yet, at the end of the parade route, people were quite happy to move on to the next attraction, the fire walking ceremony.

Firewalking is a serious religious rite with roots in Buddhist asceticism, so it began with a good deal of pomp, including chanting of prayers and bestowal of blessings.  The fire, the fire walking, and even observing the ceremony is said to cleanse one of misfortune and promote good health, long life, and world peace.

 

Once the opening ceremonies were completed, it was time to light the pyre.  Although it was covered in green boughs, the interior was dry wood and quickly caught alight.

 

The grounds of Honsen-ji are not so spacious that the pyre didn’t need to be carefully tended as it burned, lest it get out of control.  I note that the local fire department was standing by, just in case it turned out the monks couldn’t handle it.  In fact, as the fire burned the monks kept throwing water on the outside of the pyre, so that it would burn more slowly than the inside, with the result that everything would collapse inward as the fire burned.  It was pretty effective, too.

 

At one point, the pole with white paper streamers was carefully waved over the pyre to gather its smoke and was then waved over the crowd, imbuing them with the sacred, purifying smoke of the fire.

 

 

Finally the fire reached its climax and began to burn out.

 

Then the monks moved in to prepare a pathway through the embers and, surprisingly, added small sticks resembling disposable chopsticks to build up the fire again.

 

It was these flames that the adherents then proceed to walk (well, run, actually) through.  Many carried prayer tablets or other items that they were also seeking to purify.

 

After the official fire walkers were finished, the embers where scraped once again to prepare a clean pathway through the fire bed for the “official” observers and then anyone else in the crowd who wanted to walk through.  The announcer stressed that shoes were to be removed and people were to go through barefoot (there was even a special reminder for ladies not to even be wearing stockings).

 

By this time, the fire was completely burned down, but an extremely long line formed as people sought to gather as much good as they could from the experience.  It was a fitting end to the festival.  I’ll have to try to attend next year, too!

 

 

 

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