While chilling in the gardens around Dembo-in in Asakusa, admiring the beautiful Koi under the bridges, I got chatting to an elderly local called Hideo. I think he just wanted to flex his pretty impressive English skills, but his eyes lit up when we told him we were staying in Shinjuku. Excitedly, he insisted that when we got back there, we head on down to the Hanazono Jinjya Shrine, as there was a one day, once a year Torinoichi Bamboo Rake Festival taking place, and it ended at midnight. He explained it was where these elaborate bamboo charms were sold that would bring good luck for the following year.
So, after getting back to the apartment late that evening, and seeing on a map that it wasn’t that far away, we decided we’d wander down and check it out.
I don’t know what either of us were expecting – if anything – but the scale of the events down near the shrine blew us away. There was, it seemed, a full scale party going on. Dozens of stalls lined the streets – that had been closed to the usual Shinjuku traffic – selling a multitude of different foods, from deep fried octopus tentacles to chocolate covered bananas decorated to represent the Rakes that were being sold and celebrated there. But the smell of the food was only part of the sensory overload; every time a Rake was sold it was accompanied by a ritual of clapping, chanting and woodblock drumming, and hundreds of paper lanterns were mounted on frames around the Shrines.
The Rakes themselves grew more and more beautifully elaborate as you journeyed into the heart of the fair, and people leaving with newly purchased ones held them proudly aloft above their heads. Apparently half of Shinjuku was partying down there – and had been drinking for a few hours too – and again there was the great, exhilarating sense of contrast that I keep feeling in Japanese culture between the ancient and the futuristic, as the city’s young, fashionable, scantily dressed kids descended to celebrate what is obviously an important tradition.
Or maybe they were just looking for a reason to get drunk. Either way, we left feeling we were really lucky to have caught it.