Tori no Ichi (酉の市)- Japan`s November Day of the Rooster Fairs- this year (2017) there are three- on the 6th, the 18th and again on the 30th ! A comprehensive look
By Avi Landau
I`ve often heard visitors to Japan express surprise upon noticing how early in the year the Christmas decorations go up in this country ( many are surprised to find Christmas decorations in Japan at all !). I was a bit taken aback myself, when I found that at the beginning of November, not only the commercial districts of Tsukuba, but many of the traditional farmhouses in my neighborhood, were all decked out for the holiday ( Christmas) season, still more than six weeks away.
But thinking about it more carefully, I realized that with the Japanese people`s traditional love of festive and seasonal decoration (along with their enthusiastic embrace of any chance to celebrate), the Christmas tinsel and lights being put up in early November, should come as no surprise at all.
In Fact, for hundreds of years the residents of Edo (now Tokyo) have started getting into the spirit of O-Shogatsu (New Year`s) nearly two months before that festival actually arrived. They did this, and continue to do so, by visiting one of Tokyo`s ( or the surrounding area`s) Tori no Ichi (literally Rooster Fairs), which are held on the Days of the Rooster in November (in Japan each day is assigned one of the animals of the Sino-Japanese zodiac, with the same animal appearing every twelve days). That means that every year there are at least two Days of the Rooster in November, and in some years three!
The types of shrine at which these fairs have been held are most often called O-Tori Jinja Shrines or O-Washi Jinja Shrines ( interesting ly both are spelled with the same characters- 鷲神社）, which are dedicated to the enshrined spirit of one of the heroes of Japanese mythology- Yamato Takeru. According to the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki ( Japan`s oldest extant texts), when this great warrior died, he transformed into a great white bird. That is why the names of these shrines mean either Shrine of the Great Bird, or Shrine of the Eagle. All across Japan the festival day of these shrines has for more than 1000 years been the First the first Day of The Rooster( Bird) of The 11th month ( now November). It is only in the Tokyo area , however, that Tori no Ichi Markets are held.
In other words, these events are living remnants of the distinctive Edo ( old Tokyo) culture which developed between 1600 and 1868 ( during what is now called The Edo Period).
Besides having the chance to offer prayers to the god of the shrine and to undergo ritual purification, many of the visitors to these Tori no Ichi come to buy certain festive items which were considered to have the power to drive off bad energies, or invite good luck. The most famous of these, and symbolic of these Day of The Rooster Fairs, is the KUMADE (熊手), literally a bear`s paw, which is a rake, heavily decorated with an array of auspicious symbols.
A visit to one of these fairs can still give the visitor today a taste of the spirit and energy of old Edo. After my first Tori no Ichi, which I found much more exciting than I had envisioned, I have tried to get to at least one every November. Let me tell you what the event is like in this day and age and then give a comprehensive explanation of its history and meanings.
There are dozens of O-Tori and O-Washi Jinja Shrines in and around Tokyo at which Tori no Ichi Fairs are held ( these fairs are ONLY held in this area, however, which means that even at the main O-Tori Jinja shrine, which is in Sakai City, Osaka, there is no Tori no Ichi Fair!). The one that I decided to go to last year ( and recommend you to, too), first because it is the GREATEST of the fairs, and second because it is conveniently located within easy walking distance of the Tsukuba Express`s Asakusa Station, is the O-Tori Jinja (鷲神社) in Asakusa- also known as O-Tori Sama.
Getting off the TX at the Asakusa Station, on the First Day of the Rooster on November 6th this year ( Ichi no tori, in Japanese), I passed through the ticket gate and noticed the beautiful KUMADE decoration which had been put up on display for the occassion.With a rake as its base- symbolizing RAKING IN MONEY and TAKING IN GOOD LUCK, as well as the claws of an eagle, the intricately made decoration was covered with symbolically auspicious motifs- cranes for long life, carp for success, pine trees for eternal greenery, arrows for hitting the mark, the seven lucky Gods for good fortune, etc. etc.
I then took the stairs which lay straight in front of the gate and headed up to the ground level. There I turned left. Even if it had been my first time to the Tori no Ichi, it would have been no problem to find my way to the shrine. This is because of the antlike chain of pilgrims, going either to or returning from the fair. You cant miss the people who are coming back and are now headed home. Many of them are bearing on their shoulders large KUMADE which the had just purchased. Each time I walk toward the shrine on a Rooster Day in November, the scene cant help but remind me of the old woodblock prints depicting the event, as it was held during the Edo Period.
Walking for about ten minutes ( if you decide to go for yourself), you will notice an even denser crowd on the other side of the avenue. You might assume that when you cross over there, you will have arrived at the shrine. In that case , you would be mistaken. The shrine is still another fifteen minutes away. On a usual day it would not take that long, but on Rooster Days in November, the narrow streets are packed with visitors and lined with hundreds of street vendor stalls- mostly selling prepared foods, but also a few fresh produce or craft stands. The variety of foodstuffs available is surprising, even for Japan. A most attractive feature is the existence of temporary IZAKAYA ( sake pubs), with tables and benches set up under tentlike covers, which serve an assortment of freshly grilled sea-foods, meats, and vegetables, as well as plenty of SAKE!
I probably dont have to say this, but if you are planning to go the to the second Rooster Day Market this month ( Ni no Tori)on Saturday the 18th, do NOT eat anything before you go!
As you make your way, or should I say, as you are carried along by the crowd, eventually you will notice that the rows of food stands will have come to a sudden stop, only to be replaced by the KUMADE stalls. These all display impressively made and designed works ranging from the petitte to the huge.But the most astounding thing about the KUMADE market is that each stand seems to have its own unique designs! With the presence hundreds of these KUMADE stands, it would be impossible to study them all in one day. Thats why you`ve go to come back at least a second time!
Dont get stuck on the first few KUMADE stands that you find ( though you really can get caught up by the first few you encounter). Proceedeing further, you will find yourself in what seems like a covered market- not unlike a Middle-Eastern SHOUK, with stalls on both sides with merchandize stacked to the ceiling. The naked light bulbs lighting up these displays make the scene dazzling ( and hard to photograph).
Many of the KUMADE have strips of white paper with characters written on them affixed to them. Those are pices which have been ordered or reserved already. You can find the names of major hotels and corporations among the customers, and many people were excitedly pointing out the huge KUMADE which had been reserved by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. I guess you could say that these make for good publicity for those who bought them.
Many of those who buy the more expensive KUMADE are businessmen and merchants. This is made apparent by the chanting of the vendors who after a purchase is made, inscribe the decoration with a prayer and then gather in front of the stall for a rousing chant. First, the proposed purpose of the KUMADE ( by this I mean what the purchaser WISHES for) is shouted out. I have never heard a cry of good luck, or good health etc, in any of my visits. It always seems to be- SHOBAI HANJO ( 商売繁盛, business success)! Then the staff of that particular stall ( usually 3 or 4 people), together with the customer(s), stand around in a small circle and clap rhythmically- CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP – CLAP!
This enthusiatic cheer going up randomly around the market makes for real excitement, both visual and aural.
And if you stand around and listen carefully, you might hear some of the regular customers ( whose families have probably been buying from the same makers for generations) going through the traditional MOCK BARGAINING RITUAL- in which the customer beats the price down and only to PAY THE ORIGINAL PRICE in the end!
In the center of all this is the shrine itself. The line of pilgrims waiting to get to its worship hall seems never-ending. In fact, these markets run from midnight to midnight on November Rooster days, and the crowds and long lines are almost constant during that period. To save time, priests stand at the main entrance to the shrine, continuously waving their wands to ritually purify all visitors.
So much energy, so much to observe and photograph. What a way to kick off the approach to the New Year`s Season. When You`ve finally had enough and start to head back, you find youself in the same state as everyone else who has come- stomach heavier, wallet lighter, and a head filled with memorable images!
The History of The Tori no Ichi
As I have already mentioned, the shrines at which the Tori no Ichi are held are those dedicated to the deified spirit ( in the form of a bird called O-Tori Daimyojin, 鷲大明神 ) of Yamato Takeru, a mythological warrior ( most probably a composite of several REAL ancient military men) who subdued barbarian ( from the Yamato point of view) tribes, in both the South-West of Japan ( Kyushu), and in the East (Kanto).
The first Day of the Rooster of the 11th month has long been considered the day to remember Yamato Takero (as a divine spirit) and ceremonies or festivals have been held at Otori or Owashi Jinja Shrines on that day for more than a thousand years.
These shrines first appeared in Western Japan, and as I have already mentioned, the MAIN or HEAD O-Tori Shrine is located in Osaka Prefecture. All subsequent branches were opened after ritually introducing the spirit of O-Tori Daimyojin from this main shrine in Osaka`s Sakai City ( which was formerly in the region called Izumi).
Since Yamato Takeru was admired as a heroic warrior, it is only natural that it was mostly the warrior class that worshiped at his shrines. And since Eastern Japan, where Tokyo now lies, was long the turf of the samurai ( from long before they gained control over all Japan), numerous O-Tori shrines existed in that region (including the small yet ancient O-Washi Jinja right here in Tsukuba).
What happened to transform these shrines first patronized mainly by samurai into one extremely popular among merchants, businessmen and restauranteurs?
In the mid Edo Period, it seems that farmers living in the vicinity of the O-Tori Shrine in what was then the Hanamata Village (now Hanabatake in Tokyo`s Adachi Ward) would bring their freshly harvested produce, along with agricultural implements, old clothes etc, to the Festival held at the shrine on the First Day of The Rooster in November (in honor of O-Tori Daimyojin) to sell at outdoor stalls ( which is why even today, there are stand selling fresh produce at the Tori no Ichi in Asakusa).
This festival with its outdoor market became extremely popular. But these early Tori no Ichi attracted gamblers as well. When the Shogunate found out about this they closed it down ( in 1854), and the event, with its farmers market, was moved to the O-Tori Shrine near Asakusa.
Since rakes ( kumade) were among the implements sold at the fair, someone obviously hit on the idea of making these into AUSPICIOUS OBJECTS (engi-mono, 縁起もの). Not only did they symbolize RAKING IN money and good luck, but also reflected the nature of the god of the shrine- by resembling an eagles claw!
Over the years clever KUMADE makers conceived of more and more elaborate versions, sticking in more and more objects of symbolic significance.
Another popular ENGI-MONO sold at these fairs was called YAYSU GASHIRA. This consisted of eight yams strung together. Since many sprouts would emerge from each spud, these were considered symbols of being blessed with plenty of children.
Something else that helped to permenantly impress this event on the minds of the citizens of Edo ( who called it Tori no Machi then) was its proximity to the Yoshiwara- The pleasure Quarter. On the days of the Tori no Ichi a special gate to Yoshiwara, which was otherwise closed, was opened, and ALL were free to pass and mingle together.There are many extant woodblock prints showing courtesans with KUMADE.
And as you can imagine, one thing that really got the Edo housewives in a bad mood was their husbands coming back from the Tori no Ichi the morning after it ended- with a KUMADE in hand- VERY suspicious!
It is also interesting to note an interesting belief which is still held by some today- If there are three Days of the Rooster in November, then that particular year will have a lot of fires- and lots of trouble in the Yoshiwara.
If you plan on going to the Ni no Tori on November 5th, 17th or 29th, you can check out this website:
It is especially atmospheric to visit the fair in the wee hours of the morning- just before the cock crows.
To be continued……..