The Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo's biggest and best traditional festival, is taking place from May 19 to 21 this year. Here's our quick guide to making the most of the over 700-year-old celebration, which draws well over a million visitors to Asakusa annually.
Friday – from 1pm
The festival kicks off at noon on Friday, when traditional musicians and other performers make their way through the neighbourhood as part of the daigyoretsu (literally 'big parade').
Departing from the Asakusa Kumiai building on the north side of Sensoji Temple at 1pm, the parade makes its way down Umamichi-dori and towards the Kaminarimon, where the colourful procession enters the Nakamise shopping arcade before finishing at Asakusa Shrine. The day's ceremonies end at 2.30pm, as dancers show off their moves to the tunes of the binsazara (a wooden percussion instrument) at the shrine.
Note that the parade gets called off in case of rain. The full route can be viewed in PDF form here (in Japanese only).
Saturday – from noon
The Sanja Matsuri is famed for its mikoshi (portable shrines), which make an entrance from Day 2. On Saturday, representatives from Asakusa's 44 neighbourhood associations gather at Asakusa Shrine before taking to the streets with a total of 100 mini-shrines of all shapes and sizes. There's no comprehensive list of routes and times for these, so just head to central Asakusa on the day and you're sure to encounter plenty of loud and energetic mikoshi troupes.
Sunday – 7.30am to 8pm
The highlight of the festival comes on Sunday, when Asakusa Shrine's three enormous mikoshi are taken for a tour of the neighbourhood. The action starts at 6am with the miyadashi ceremony, while the mikoshi are usually ferried through the shrine gates at around 7.30am.
Shuttled down the streets by sturdy men and women from the aforementioned neighbourhood associations, the sacred monsters are as heavy as they look – a fact that only adds to the spectacle and often leads to both close calls and heated exchanges among the carriers. The mikoshi return to Asakusa Shrine between 7pm and 8pm, but note that the ending ceremony is not open to the public.
・All of Asakusa gets crowded during the Sanja Matsuri, but the strip between the Kaminarimon and Asakusa Shrine tends to get absolutely stuffed.
・The mikoshi look especially pretty at night – and the temperatures are more manageable after dark, too.
・Restaurants and cafés in the area also get massively crowded, so you might want to fill up away from Asakusa or grab a sandwich at the konbini before heading over.
・Whatever you do, don't try to get to Asakusa by car during the weekend.
・For the full schedule and list of ceremonies, see the official Sanja Matsuri website (in Japanese only).