Think of it as the Japanese Mardi Gras. Held in May, the 350-year-old Sanja Matsuri festival brings 1.5 million revelers to Asakusa in eastern Tokyo to honor the three founders of the district's Sensoji a Buddhist temple that is the city's oldest. The throng, more densely packed than any rush-hour train, is an unforgettable spectacle. Young and old are adorned in festive clothes, and pant with the effort of bearing dozens of mikoshi (portable shrines) through Asakusa's 44 residential blocks, while yakuza in loincloths proudly sport their full-body tattoos in a normally forbidden display.
Sanja Matsuri takes place on the third weekend of May. On the Friday prior, floats process to Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto place of worship close by Sensoji, for the binzasara no mai, or "harvest dance." The mikoshi parade comes the following day. Locals say that the more a shrine sways and shakes, the greater the gods' favor. The festival ends on Sunday, usually with a parade of the three mikoshi belonging to the local shrine. But because revelers became so rowdy last year climbing on to the structures during the procession for safety reasons the three mikoshi won't be going anywhere in 2008, and organizers say that some other finale will be held instead. Evidently a swaying shrine brings luck but not if it sways too much.