Kanda Matsuri: A parade through historical Tokyo… with giant catfish!

Everyone knows the Gion festival in Kyoto and the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori. But what about Tokyo? What’s Tokyo big festival? Well, of course, there are lots but one particularly colorful and dynamic example is the Kanda Matsuri, which is being held this May for the first time in four years.

As part of the festivities, 3331 Arts Chiyoda is currently hosting a new exhibition that showcases the Kanda Matsuri, ‘Scroll Painting of Traditional Festival: The Style and Culture of Edo’. The center piece is a full reproduction of a scroll painting of the Edo era matsuri, which has been scanned and printed, and then exhibited all along on the walls of the gallery. In the scroll you can see the incredibly vibrant and diverse nature of the original festival, filled with large mobile floats known as dashi or tsukematsuri. Also look out for mythical creatures, important warriors and dignitaries with pallaquins (actually the shitamachi town people in costume!), musicians and banner-bearers, and more.

You can even take home a miniature version of the scroll painting, to cut out and display in your office.

We spoke with exhibition curator Yuumi Shishido about the background to the festival and the scroll painting.

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What was the Kanda Matsuri? How did it originally start?

​It started as a festival to give thanks to a shrine through Noh theatre. In order to pray for peace, the townspeople would hold Noh performances. In Noh you act out the gods; it is something made by faith in beseeching the gods for help.

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But there was also the Tenka Matsuri. How was that different to the Kanda Matsuri?

​ During the Edo period the Kanda Matsuri entered the precincts of Edo Castle where the Shogun watched the procession. That’s why it came to be known as the Edo Tenka Matsuri. [Tenka, literally "under the heavens", means "power" and refers to the Shogun here.] There are actually other festivals called Tenka Matsuri, such as Hie Shrine’s Sanno Matsuri and Nezu Shrine’s festival.

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Look out for huge inoshishi (wild boar), Daruma and more.

In the parade there are all sorts of interesting floats, including Kintaro, wild boars, and the giant catfish Namazu. Of course, these aren’t the real thing! What were they originally made of?

​They are said to have been made out of wood and paper, like papier-mâché.

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The catfish is the mythical creature Namazu

We’re really interested in how the townspeople were allowed to perform roles ordinarily a world away from their social status at the time. In a way, the matsuri was kind of like the cosplay of the Edo period, right?

​ Among modern festivals, the Asakusa Samba Carnival is closer to the tsukematsuri. The tsukematsuri floats were a way for a fixed number of people to get together and express a theme and story, and this is probably different to otaku culture cosplay. It’s closer to a parade where there are all kinds people behind the scenes, such as producers and escorts.

And the Kanda Matsuri continues today. Has it changed?

​The Noh element to the festival was lost after the Noh stage burnt down in a fire in the Edo period, though it was revived ten years ago. Most of the dashi [floats] were lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake [1923] or the firebombing of Tokyo [1945], though some have been rebuilt since then. For various reasons, though, they stopped pulling the dashi after the Meiji period. The mikoshi route no longer enters Edo castle and processes around the area. The route has changed a little with time.

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The exhibition also features Kanda-themed pictures by Eizo Kinoshita

When was the scroll painting created? Was it ever exhibited somewhere?

​ It was painted in the late Edo period and Meiji period. It was painted to be a record for what the festival was like. A part of it has been exhibited before at the Kanda Myojin Shrine but this is the first time for all the scroll to be shown in its entire length. However, the scroll shown at 3331 is a version printed from a high-definition digitalized scan of the actual scroll. It is said to depict the Edo era festival accurately.

So this is a very special chance to see the scroll painting, then. The images of the dashi are really cute. Is there something unique about the scroll painting that other similar scrolls don’t have?

​​​ All thirty-six dashi are depicted in the scroll and you can see how the tsukematsuri looked at the time. You are unlikely to find another scroll painting with that many floats depicted all together.

Is there a part of the scroll that you personally like the most?

​ I like the part with Taro Urashima. There’s a person with a fish on their head. It always makes me laugh.

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Edo era paper craft toys, tatebanko

And we love the tatebanko paper craft models. If only there were more toys like this today! The exhibition features some complete examples of tatebanko, but how long does it take to make one?

​It takes around one hour and a half to make one. There are no instructions so you have to make it using your imagination, so it takes quite some time to work out where to cut and where to join things up, and then make all the detailed cuts. (But this is why it’s interesting!) I think for small children it would take longer.

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The Kumasaka float had a puppet figure with automaton eyes!
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​​ We heard that the “Kumasaka” dashi was a puppet float that was also partly . And there’s an apocryphal story about the Shogun disliking it right?

​Yes, its eyes are karakuri. When it was shown to the Shogun it was accidentally set to stare right at him, and afterwards it is said to have been placed at the back of the procession. All the puppet floats had special characteristics so it’s hard to talk about what made the Kumasaka dashi float unique, but there was someone hiding in the back and who moved the karakuri eyes with string attached to the head while the float was being pulled.

Thank you, Yuumi Shishido!

The Kanda Matsuri will start on May 9th, starting at 9 a.m and lasts several days. There are also special workshops and talk events through the exhibition period where you can learn more about Tokyo history.

‘Scroll Painting of Traditional Festival: The Style and Culture of Edo’
Until May 19
Venue: 3331 Arts Chiyoda

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