Chasing away evil spirits with cross-dressing men in the Tokyo suburbs
It’s 8am on a Sunday morning and I’m walking along a deserted freeway in Edogawa-ku, a district on the outskirts of Tokyo. Unsure if I’m heading in the right direction, I ask a couple walking their dog the way to Shinzoin Temple. “Shinzoin Temple? Why are you going there?” the guy asks me while simultaneously bagging up a present his dog has just left him on the pavement. I tell them there’s a small festival happening where men dress up as women and then run about the streets. He looks at me with a blank expression and points down the road.
Sure enough, after about 500m I turn down a side street beside a motorbike dealership and see incense rising from behind a wall in the sun. As I get closer I can hear sporadic chattering, and the temple comes into view. About 20 people are milling about outside a makeshift marquee. I’m the only foreigner, and as usual at these types of small local events people give me friendly but inquisitive looks, surprised that I’m there. As I stand in the temple grounds looking about a guy comes up to me and asks where I’m from, beckoning me over to the marquee and ushering a lady to give me something to eat. She ladles me out a bowl of nikujaga – a kind of a potato and meat stew – and the guy eagerly watches me eat, waiting for my predictable cries of “oishii!” (“It’s delicious!”)
As it turns out, this particular guy is in the know and has designed a crudely printed pamphlet all about the festival, not dissimilar to a fanzine you might see at a punk show. He hands me one, pointing at the grainy pictures of men dressed in colourful kimono, running through the streets. Legend tells of a priest from Shinzoin temple who went from house to house carrying ancient scrolls to chase evil spirits away when cholera prevailed towards the end of Edo era. Another legend tells of a man who lived in the district who dressed in women’s kimono to drive away evil spirits for his sister who was suffering from tuberculosis.
Suddenly looking as if he has just remembered something important, my pamphleted friend grabs me by the arm and leads me across the street to a suburban area where the participants of this year’s event are waiting. Everyone is in good spirits and we take group photos, many of the guys wearing ridiculously over-the-top wigs and makeup. When it’s time to go, the leader of the group sharply blows a whistle and everyone begins to run down towards the temple, rhythmically chanting in a fashion common at these events. The matsuri (festival) is about to begin.
Standing on the steps of the temple, the 50-or-so participants fix their kimono, pose for photos and then kanpai as a group, sharing a huge bottle of sake. Once again the whistle blows and they take to the streets, running down the middle of the road as policemen redirect traffic and tell buses to wait. As I run alongside the group in the morning sun I have one of those “how on earth did I end up here?” moments that happen every so often living in Japan.
The group begins to slow outside a house, chanting in unison and announcing that they will enter the property to cleanse away any evil spirits. The owners of house are expecting us, and beers and snacks have been laid out for everyone to enjoy. A few of the guys are already on their way to being drunk and it’s not even 10am, such is the compulsory boozing etiquette at these types of things. The garden we are in is beautiful, with perfectly manicured trees and an old wooden house watching over us. After a short time the procession moves on and the whole thing repeats itself; the group running down the road to the next house, the next load of snacks and the next drink.
Just two hours previous I had been walking along a deserted freeway alone, yet now here I am surrounded by scenes I can hardly imagine. These local festivals are why I love living in Japan, as you never know what you’ll find round the next corner. Video below.