The Kanda Matsuri is one of Tokyo's three most famous festivals, along with the Sanno Matsuri and Fukagawa Matsuri. It takes place in mid May in odd numbered years, alternating with the Sanno Matsuri which is held in even numbered years. The Kanda Festival consists of numerous events held over an entire week, but the main action usually happens over the weekend closest to May 15. The highlights are a day-long procession through central Tokyo on Saturday, and parades of portable shrines (mikoshi) by the various neighborhoods on Sunday.
The festival started during the Edo Period (1603-1867). When the Tokugawa shogun began to rule the country from Edo (present day Tokyo), the festival was celebrated as a demonstration of prosperity under the new regime. Then, the Kanda Matsuri and the Sanno Matsuri were the only two festivals that were allowed to pass through the Edo Castle grounds. Both were originally held annually, but after competition between the two had grown too intense, they were eventually ordered to be held in alternate years only.
The Kanda Matsuri is the festival of the Kanda Myojin Shrine which enshrines three deities: Daikokuten - the god of good harvest and matrimony, Ebisu - the god of fishermen and businessmen, and Taira Masakado - a feudal lord of the 10th century who was revered and deified. Over the years, the Kanda Festival came to be a celebration for the wealth and good fortune of the people.
Saturday - Main Procession
In the evening before the main procession, Shinto rituals are held to invite the spirits of the shrine's three deities into three ornately decorated mikoshi. These portable shrines constitute the most important part of the procession that takes place on Saturday when they are paraded through the streets of Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi and Akihabara. Accompanying the mikoshi are about a thousand people, including musicians, priests on horses, and many dressed in colorful traditional costumes.
The procession leaves Kanda Myojin Shrine at 8:00 in the morning. At around 10:30, a brief stop is made for prayers at the shrine's former grounds near the Tokyo Imperial Palace. The procession continues through the Otemachi and Kanda districts before a break for lunch is made around 13:30. After the procession resumes, it passes near the Nihonbashi Bridge and by the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store at 16:30. It then proceeds along Chuo-dori Street through the Akihabara district before returning to the shrine around 19:00.
Also on Saturday, a secondary procession is held from later in the afternoon. It starts at 15:00 from close to the Arima Elementary School and proceeds north to the Kanda Myojin Shrine in about three hours. This procession features crowd favorites such as men on horses clad in samurai uniforms, festival floats with characters from popular folk stories and contemporary pop culture, musicians and dancers.
Sunday - Mikoshi Parades
On the following day, the spectacle continues with mikoshi parades by various neighborhoods in the Kanda and Nihonbashi districts. In line with custom, every neighborhood has a local guardian deity (ujigami) who looks after the community and their families. During the parades, the ujigami are temporarily housed in mikoshi (portable shrines) and walked through the streets to bless the local residents.
A good location to catch the activity is along the main approach to Kanda Myojin Shrine, since most of the mikoshi eventually make their way to the shrine. From around 8:00 to 17:30, the various neighborhoods with their respective mikoshi take turns to enter the shrine, resulting in streets full of vibrant colors, infectious festival music and a joyful atmosphere. Some neighborhoods in the Nihonbashi area do not visit the Kanda Myojin Shrine and instead parade their mikoshi only around their local districts.