At the Bird Shrines / by Jim Hathaway

Kumade Matsuri

It surprised me the way the whole festival pops up and disappears again in a single day.  The bird days, 12 days apart. The festival appears and disappears two or three times depending upon how many chicken days, sorry, bird days, are in this year’s November.  The superstition among old timers is that a year with three bird days is a dangerous year. It means fires are coming, a year troubled by fire.

Fire was the bane of Edo’s Low City.  The Low City seemed to pretty much burn down every eight years or so, houses being dry wood and so close together they were touching.

Fires and mosquitoes, but in November you are safe from the mosquitoes

The Kumade Festival takes place on the tori days of the eleventh month. The old Japanese calendar was lunar. Each month was broken up into days identified by animals of the Chinese zodiac. Every twelfth day is a tori day, a bird day.  If you are talking about yakitori you are talking chickens. It you are talking OTori you are talking about a greater bird. The Otori Jinja, (shrine) is located just behind the Yoshiwara’s back door, ten minutes walk north of Asakusa.

That is ten minutes on a regular day. On tori days in November it will take considerably longer. The crowds are remarkable. And even more remarkable is their purpose.

They are waiting, jostling and creeping along in a line to pay good money for decorated rakes to hang in the corner of their shops. Kumade, bear paws, rakes that have been decorated with coins of plastic gold, bright red saints, gods, and the pretty face of Otafuko, a fat cheeked woman, smiling to you bring luck.  

Some people believe January first begins the new year.  But in the Low City the new year starts in November, when you put your old Kumade in the bin to be burned and get yourself a new one.

It is a merchant's festival, and it is unique in Japan in a couple of ways.  The sole purpose is to buy decorated rakes.  Before the purchase, people stand in line to throw a little money into the box in front of the shrine, rattle the thick rope connected to a sort of bell that rattles more than rings, to beseech the Otori god for success in business in the coming year.