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The Rooster Festival – Tori No Ichi

ToriNoIchi-KumadeVendors

酉の市
Tori No Ichi

When we lived in Tokyo, we really wanted to experience a matsuri or festival — Tori No Ichi ended up being our first.  So on a brisk November afternoon, we set out to the Otori Shrine in Asakusa area within Taito Ward of Tokyo.

When we reached the Tori-no-ichi Fair, a lively and loud shoulder-to-shoulder crowd greets us. The grounds are packed with colorful stalls selling festive “good luck rakes.” Food stands, billowing with steam, assault us with savory and sweet odors. Wandering and slightly confused we couldn’t help but wonder: “What is it all for?”

Making a Wish at Tori No Ichi

What is Tor-No-Ichi?

Torinoichi, Tori No Ichi, and Tori-no-Ichi.

Regardless of how its spelled in English, its true name is 酉の市 and in short, “Tori No Ichi” means “Market of the Rooster” or “Rooster Fair.”

– “Tori” means “The Rooster.” It also means “bird,”  but this specific kanji stems from the Chinese character for the tenth zodiac sign.

– “No” means “of”

– “Ichi” means “market” or “fair.”

Every November on the Day of the Rooster (according to the old Japanese calendar system), over 30 Otori Shrines throughout Japan hold a Tori No Ichi.  Just like the Chinese zodiac animals, Rooster days happen every 12 days, so a Rooster Market usually twice or three times so long as it falls within the month of November.

One of Many Kumade Stalls

The Ritual

Hours before midnight, crowds line up the main gate hundreds long and 4 to 5 people wide consisting of families or business groups. When the clock ticks over, the shrine announces the opening with a loud drum.  Inside the shrine, priests say prayers and opening rights, all of which is quick and takes no more than 15 minutes. As monks ring the bell, additional priests clade in white pray over the crowd for good luck and good health. All of this is mostly going unseen by the vast crowds outside, only to be witnessed by attendants inside and glimpsed by those just beyond the shrine thresholds.

Just outside the shrine itself is obscured by a wall of lit paper lanterns, each inscribed with the names and businesses of those who donated to the shrine. The air is so thick with incense supposedly warding off any bad spirits and misfortune. The deep rumbling of drums seems to cut through the din of crowds, announcing the start of Tori No Ichi.

Numerous Lanterns Obscure the Shrine

Lengthy lines of people pass under the tori gate, while two shrine officiants wave a purifying Ōnusa (a kind of wand with paper streamers) over them. When worshipers reach the front of the shrine, they throw their coins in the collection box, ring the bell, and then pray for good fortune. They then move off to the side either to buy additional fortunes or look for a “kumade” or rake to buy.

Kumade – Rake Talismans of Good Luck

After making our offering at the shrine, we move off to ogle at decorative rakes or kumade. The kiosks come big and small, each packed to the brim with rakes of all sizes and of various degrees of ornateness.

Business owners big and small especially make it a point to attend Tori No Ichi every year to help their businesses “rake in” wealth and good fortune. At a large shrine, such as the Otori Shrine in Asakusa, there are over 150 kumade vendors, each offering their special designs on a lucky bamboo rakes

Kumade brimming with Good Luck Decorations

A kumade talisman is made of a base bamboo rake, very much like the kind you use to sweep the leaves off lawns. Many are decorated with a chubby-cheeked female mask, which is in the likeness of Otafuku, the Goddess of Mirth. Other decorative good luck charms and symbols of wealth include:

Maneki Neko – Beckoning Cat, usually a gold-colored with the left paw raised and a gold coin in the right. This is in the hope to bring in more customers while wishing for wealth and prosperity.

Daruma Doll – A hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Daruma is a talisman seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck.

Sho Chiku Bai or “Three Friends of Winter” – Pine, bamboo, and plum blossom. These three symbols represent steadfast longevity (pine), vigorous perseverance (bamboo), and resilience (plum).

Tai or “Sea Bream” – Tai (鯛) is the same phonetics as the Tai as used in “omedetai” which means congratulations, or happy.

Crane and Turtle – Both animals are considered symbols of longevity. There is a Japanese saying, “‘tsuru sen-nen, kami man-nen”, which means “the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000”

Shichi Fukujin or “Seven Lucky Gods” – many anime fans will recognize who the seven lucky gods, but in Japan, they important figures in Buddhism often invoked for good luck and fortune.

Kazari Goma with Reverse “Horse” Character – A large decorative wooden plaque in the shape of a shogi piece. If found on a rake, the kazari goma will have the kanji Hidari Uma (The Left Facing Horse). So instead of reading “Uma” for “horse” it would be said as “Ma-u” which means dance. Traditionally, a dance was performed for celebrations, and thus it became synonymous with good luck.

Watching a sale of a rake for the first time is a treat in itself. The buyer and seller engage in a passionate mock haggle battle over a selected rake, going back and forth until a price is settled. After the show is done, the buyer pays the original price. She then refuses any change given by the seller, all while saying “This is a gift for you.”

Buyers who follow this traditional faux haggling ceremony will be treated by a three-fold clapping chant by the rake vendor owner and staff over the rake itself – as if pouring good luck into it by sheer will. This chant and rhythmic clapping can be heard in threes everywhere in the kumade vendor area:

“ヨッ!ソーレソーレソーレッ!”
“Yooo! Sore! Sore! Sore!”

Congratulations! Once the clapping chant is complete, the buyer takes the luck infused and often oversized amulet to their business to put on display.

The Spirited Luck-Infusing Kumade Chant

History of the Festival of the Rooster

Three hundred years ago, when Tokyo was known as Edo, the first Tori No Ichi was held in a hamlet called Hanamata-mura, which is now known as Hanahata-chō, Adachi-ku, Tokyo by. Farmers and Ujiko (worshipers) would gather and hold a thanksgiving festival to the local diety, Ōtori Daimyōjin. Families would offer roosters or other kinds of live birds to the shrine, then hold a market to sell their goods and produce. Worshipers would then set the birds free the next day in front of Asakusa’s Kannondō temple, now known as Senso-ji temple.

Secondary shrine for prayer

Yatai – The Food Stalls

As per tradition, shrines that celebrate Tori No Ichi would offer space to merchants and allow them to hold a market. Today that takes place in the form of Yatai or “food stalls.”  It just wouldn’t be a Matsuri or “festival” without food stalls, and a large festival like Asakusa’s Tori No Ichi will have hundreds of Yatai.

Sig Eating Meat on a Stick
Sig Eating Meat on a Stick from a Yatai

There are tons of Matsuri foods and it merits its own blog post of its own, but three treats are worth mentioning here because they are specific to the Tori No Ichi festival.

Kashira no Imo (頭の芋) – Literally means “head of taro” and is usually steamed. Worshipers ate its corm in the hope that they would become a leader or “head” of a prosperous business.

Kogane Mochi (黄金もち) – “Golden Rice Cake” usually made with Japanese millet, which gives it a gold color. This Edo period sweet was said to help bring in wealth but has gone out of style since then. Today they sell Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) in its place.

Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) – “Cut Pepper Rice Candy” A chewy rice candy made from a mixture of sugar, powdered Japanese Sansho pepper, and rice flour. According to the ladies at the stand, eating Japanese Sansho Pepper will help prevent catching a cold. The recipe is below.

An Old Tokyo Festival Worth Celebrating

Even though the first Tori No Ichi of the November is considered auspicious, it is always held a second time, and sometimes a third, later in the month. Regardless of when you go, this festival is a fantastic way to dive deep into Japanese culture, while wishing for good luck and maybe a rake of fortune to bring home!

Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) Recipe

  • 600g Glutinous short-grain Japanese rice flour
  • 250g Unrefined dark brown sugar
  • 250g Light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Japanese Sansho Fine-Ground Pepper
  • ½ teaspoon Salt
  • 3 cups Water

Hardware

  • Steamer
  • Sautee pan
  • Mixing Bowl
  • Mixing Spoon
  • Directions

Directions

1. Over medium heat, mix salt, sugar, and pepper in a pan in water until sugar is fully dissolved. When the sugar has melted into a dark syrup turn off the heat, let it cool down until it’s safe to touch.

2. Add the glutinous rice flour to the sugar syrup and knead well. The mixture will become stiff, but still pliable.

3. Flatten the flour-sugar ball to about 1 to 2 cm thick and such that it fits into the steamer. Place into a paper-lined steamer and steam for about 15 minutes.

4. Remove from steamer and let cool. Then sprinkle with potato starch and cut it into strips. Make sure to coat strips in starch such that the candies don’t stick to each other. The candy should be soft, but a bit firmer than mochi.

Kiri-Zansho or Cut Pepper Mochi Rice Candy

23 WardsFoodLocal FavoritesTaitō

Yanaka Ginza

YakanaGinza
  • Official Name: Yanaka Ginza [谷中霊園] in Taitō-ku, Tokyo
  • Address: 3-chōme-13-1 Yanaka, Taitō-ku, Tōkyō-to 110-0001
  • Closest Stations: Sendagi Station on the Chiyoda Line, Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line
  • Nearby landmarks: Yanaka Cemetery Park (谷中霊園 – Yanaka Reien), Ueno Park (上野公園 – Ueno Kōen), Asakura Museum of Sculpture 台東区立朝倉彫塑館 Taitō kuritsu asakura chōsokan)
  • Website: https://www.yanakaginza.com/

Retro Tokyo

Want to experience a bit of retro Tokyo? Then visit Yakana Ginza in the Northwestern edge of Taitō City. Within a five-minute walk of either Nippori Station or Sendagi Station, resides a collection of locally-owned food stalls, arty shops, and cozy cafes — all lining a short 175-meter street to form what’s known as a shōtengai (商店街) or shopping street.

By modern standards, Yakana Ginza is a small shopping street, but back in 1955 that’s all the locals ever needed. For a community rebuilding from the trials of World War II, Yakana Ginza supplied all their daily needs some of which you can still see today with its small produce stands and kitchen wears. Over the years, locals have tapped into their Edo-period Shitamachi roots to build a bustling tourist attraction on a grassroots scale.

What is Shitamachi (下町) you ask? In the 1600s Tokyo was geographically and economically divided into two: Shitamachi consisted of the physically low marshy part of the city along and east of the Sumida River, home to merchants, artisans, tradesmen, and trivial entrepreneurs. The other half of Tokyo was called Yamanote (山の手) and area refers to the hilly homes of the wealthy, upper-class citizens living just west of the Imperial Palace.

Cats & Shrines

Today, Yanaka is considered a part of the district of Yanesen (谷根千) together with Nezu (根津) and Sendagi (千駄木). Yanesen collectively is home to many restored and relocated Edo-period temples and shrines, and most importantly, home to a sizeable number of stray cats.

The cats appear to be drawn to the area’s extraordinary density of trees (by Tokyo standards), serene shrines, and hushed cemeteries. Yanaka Ginza locals love the kitties and are quick to give treats, so don’t be surprised if a neko-san or two comes strolling along the way. They’ve also have gone so far as to make a stray cat as their mascot. Paying a visit to any of the many stores will yield catty-themed commodities: from cat-shaped confections to feline ornaments and kitty print kimonos.

Going south beyond Yanaka Ginza toward Ueno, you can view numerous Edo period shines and temples from various sects. Also, in the area is Yanaka Cemetery Park, famous for Cherry-blossom Avenue, a path completely covered in beautiful cherry blossoms in April.

Yanaka Ginza Beckoning Cats
Yanaka Ginza Beckoning Cats

When to Visit

Although you can wander the street pretty much any time, the shops in Yanaka Ginza typically don’t open until around 10 AM and they close at around 7 PM at night. Some shops may even have shorter hours and are not even open on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, it all just depends on the owner. If you want to experience the most of what Yanaka has to offer in terms of shopping, visit either on Fridays or weekends since they’ll have sales and specials available ready to entice shoppers.

When it comes to seasons, my favorite time to visit is late Autumn — the temperature is comfortable and the air not too humid. By October and November, the academic season is in full swing, which means there are fewer students on holiday, unlike in the Spring. I should note that Tokyo summers can get oppressively muggy and often rains heavily. While the shops are still open, it’s just not as fun to sit outside as your beer gets diluted with rain. Winter is my second pick on when to visit, only because it’s dry and its fun to buddle up to some warm sake and a piping-hot meat skewer.

How to Visit Yanaka Ginza

Some shop workers will know a bit English, but I suggest downloading a simple Japanese travel phrasebook or get a fancy pocket translator since many are pretty darn good these days. Otherwise, pointing at the thing you want and then holding up the number of items you want on your fingers is your best option. They will usually say how much yen it costs in total.

For food, sample as much food as you want — nearly everything is tasty – just remember to stop when you decide to drink and eat, since eating and drinking while walking is considered rude. When you want to throw garbage away after eating, look for bins and either end of the street – usually one for plastic bottles and another for burnable garbage. Sometimes the shop will throw paper wrappers or skewers away for you after eating, especially if you thank them and tell them how delicious their food was.

If you are staying for longer, consider taking a class or lesson at the Yanesen Tourist Information and Culture Center. The staff speak English and are super friendly. Lessons usually involve various traditional Japanese activities such as how to wear a kimono, making soba, ikebana or flower arranging, tea ceremony and even how to wear kabuki costumes. If you’re looking for a more extensive tour of the area, they’ll introduce you to a local guide who will take you around the area and offer explanations in English.

Yanaka Ginza stores tend to close around 6 or 7 PM, so go early in the day.

Shops to Visit in Yanaka Ginza

Best Shop for Omiyage (aka “Gifts” or “Souvenirs”)

YUZURIHA (谷中店) – Yuzuriha is a cute confectionary shop that features a seasonal rotation of Japanese style sweets. I recommend buying the cute cat paw candies.

Best Spot for a Mid-Morning Pick-me-up

Yanaka Manten Doughnuts – Simple is best! Baked not-fried donuts with a decent cup of coffee or tea. My personal favorites are the matcha and maple donuts.

Best Store for a Cold Beer on a Hot Day

Echigoya Honten – Echigoya is a small-town liquor store, not the hotel that once stood here. The original Echigoya Hotel was founded at the end of the Meiji period. They offer super cheap cold beer and a crate at the front of the shop to sit and enjoy it. If beer is not to your bent, you could also try local fruit wines or Japanese sake.

Kitty and Cold Beer – A good combo

Best Fried Food to Go with Your Beer

Niku-no-Sato (肉のサトー) – Famous for its numerous TV appearances, this butcher shop has been selling croquettes, menchi-katsu, and fried meats since 1933. Their signature Yanaka Mechchi sells for under 200JP¥ ($1.80). I can just imagine the juicy meat and fragrant onions encased in a crispy fried panko. Yummy!

Best Place for Posh Japanese Deserts

Waguriya (和栗や – “Japanese chestnut”) – This cafe is the only place to serve Japanese chestnut desserts throughout the year. Their specialty is a mont blanc, a desert-adapted from its French namesake. The Nipponese mont blanc is an exquisitely layered confection featuring a sponge cake base covered with fresh cream and rich chestnut cream. A whole chestnut is pressed into the cream, followed by a generously pipped heap of chestnut purée. Depending on the season they’ll dress the mont blanc with other flavors like strawberry, matcha, or sweet yam, but rest assured there will be chestnuts within. During autumn weekends, they’ll break out a chestnut roasting engine which billows out steamy goodness.

Chestnut cream & Melons

Best Store for Tea & Accessories

Kinyoshien (金吉園) – Pick from a variety of Japanese green teas including ones you may have not even heard of. Fancy teapots and teacups would also make a fine gift. My personal favorite is the beautiful colorful tea containers and the tiny ceramic kitties to perch your chopsticks upon.

Best Cat Kitch Store

Neko Action – In partnership with local artists, this store sells some of the cutest kitty-themed goods I’ve seen. Also, apart from stationery, accessories, and kitchen accessories, you might also spot the occasional sleeping cat.

Anything with cats is good!

Best Kakigōri “Shaved Ice” for a Super-Hot Day

Himitsudō (ひみつ堂) – This adorable shop is best known for its handmade fruit syrups poured over a heap of hand-cranked shaved ice. Flavors change regularly enough to make you come back almost daily. My personal favorite flavor is the Miyazaki Mango Short. If you visit in the summer, be ready to wait in line because this place is popular. I should note that their menu changes quite often, and if you’re curious as to what the owner has planned for the day, visit the shop’s Twitter account at himitsuno132

A happy Cat