Looking up in Tokyo

I’ve been seeing some strange things lately while looking up as I traipse past shops and buildings in this gleaming metropolis.

The first time this happened, I was being given a tour of the sprawling Tokyo Metropolitan Government tower in Shinjuku three weeks back. Positioned along a high wall, it loomed large from above, a bouquet of paraphernalia – cat figurines with their left paws lifted, fish figures, fans, flowers, a neatly tied pillow, small drums a set of gold coins.

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Maybe just a casual, albeit odd, decoration, I thought.

The second time I spotted this Mysteriously Large Object was at the Edo Tokyo Museum located within walking distance of the Ryogoku Station. This assorted hive was huge and overflowing with even more items – paper cranes, golden balls, several wood panels with inscriptions in dark ink and the large lit-up mask of a chubby child, right smack in the centre of this strikingly bizarre creation.

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By the third encounter, when I saw a simpler version along a small sweet shop in the Yanesen area, I told myself I had to do a bit of reading up.

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As it turns out, these intricate creations are called kumade – bamboo rakes that have been decorated with various ornaments for good luck.

These rakes were traditionally used to sweep away fallen leaves, but from the Edo period also began to be adorned with various items as symbols of good luck – I guess in line with the phrase ‘raking in good fortune’.

The cranes you saw in the second picture above represent long life, as does the tortoise, while the cat figurine and its raised paw are harbingers of prosperity; virtually a must-have in shops and restaurants. Gold coins are too are a metaphor for good business and success.

The smiling lit-up face, it turns out, belongs to Otafuku, not a child, but a plump and cheery female character from traditional folklore and Japanese mythology. She represents fertility, fortune and happiness.

Every year in November, the Tori-no-ichi festival (days of the Rooster) is held at various Otori shrines across the country for believers to pray for good fortune, good business and lots of luck in the coming year. At shrines such as the Otori Jinja Shrine in Asakusa, (where the festival originally began during the Edo period), the large-scale festivities involve some 200 stalls in the area selling kumade. Just imagine that – a kumade fest!

Japan’s National Tourism Organisation website tells me that the fun part comes from observing these transactions – sellers and buyers clap their hands together in a coordinated manner and say a little cheer – all in the name of good fortune.

I checked the dates for Tori-no-ichi this year, the rooster days start on November 10th, just a day after I’m scheduled to fly back home to Singapore, sadly.

But if I take home the pictures of the my three kumades, perhaps that can count too?

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