Hanazono Shrine, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, is an imposing Shinto shrine that many visitors fortuitously stumble upon after drinking at the adjacent Golden Gai’s tiny counter bars, or shopping at the area’s towering department stores. It might not be apparent from such a casual visit, but this a singular shrine with a long history of doing things somewhat differently to the typical place of worship.
Hanazono has hosted performances from radical, countercultural theater troupes since back in the 1960s, and going back further it has established its own, anarchically vibrant, take on the traditional Tori No Ichi festival. Held each November, this is an experience not to be missed if you’re lucky enough to be in town at this time.
Tori No Ichi (‘The Cock Fair’) is said to have its origins in a centuries-old farmer’s festival, at which the Shinto gods were entreated for a bountiful harvest, held at Otori Shrine in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward. By the Edo period (1603-1868) the festival, pretty much as it is today, was being held at principal shrines all across Japan, with the merchant class now praying not for healthy crops but instead for lucrative business over the coming year.
Key to ensuring a healthy turnover was the purchase at Tori No Ichi of a kumade (‘bear’s hand’). These colorfully decorated bamboo talismans, often featuring the plump, white face of a women known as Otafuku (‘Great Fortune’), were believed to ‘rake in’ prosperity and remain a central element of the festival.
Hanazono Shrine's version of Tori No Ichi takes place on three days every November, at two-week intervals and with a warm-up event held the night before each main event. Each of the three main festivals begin around noon, with the ‘pre-game’ eve events commencing around sundown, but in either case we urge you to visit at nighttime: this is when the atmosphere is at its most electric, with festivities on all six dates continuing until around 2am.
After dark you’ll find the shrine’s expansive main precinct warmly illuminated by hundreds of lanterns bearing the names of local businesses that are sponsoring the event. Here on the main square a crowd amasses in order to patiently join the queue waiting to ascend the steps of the shrine itself and offer a prayer (be sure to have the customary five yen coin ready to toss into the offering box; this too is said to bring good fortune).
Once prayers have been offered, the throng lets rip. Over 50 stands in the shrine grounds sell kumade in sizes ranging from hand-held to huge creations destined to adorn the walls of local stores and eateries, and are joined by around 200 stalls offering beer and hot amazake (sweet sake); foods ranging from traditional takoyaki and grilled fish to erotic-looking chocolate bananas that would be at home in neighbouring Kabukicho; and a variety of games and performances that border on the mind-warping and affirm Hanazono’s links with the artistic underground. Fire-based acts up the temperature, both literally and figuratively.
To fully get into the spirit of things, you can choose to hide your face, and any last inhibitions that might remain after a few cups of amazake, behind masks sold at several stalls: adopt the guise of the above-mentioned Otafuku lady, or get foxy behind kitsune (fox) masks decorated in a wealth of designs and symbolic of the god Inari who promotes fertility among other things.
Ensuring that the sellers of kumade themselves stay in the black, the lifespan of these artifacts is but one year: revelers bring along last year’s kumade, to be dumped upon a pile stacked up in a far corner of Hanazono’s grounds and destined to be ceremoniously burned.