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Ikazuchi no Daihannya Festival 8
Justin Egli

The spirit-chasing, cross-dressing men of outer Tokyo

A report from Ikazuchi no Daihannya, a weird and wonderful ‘matsuri’ that takes place annually to ward off ancient ghosts

It’s 8am on a Sunday morning and I’m walking along a deserted freeway in Edogawa-ku, a district on the outskirts of Tokyo. Unsure if I’m heading in the right direction, I ask a couple walking their dog the way to Shinzoin Temple. “Shinzoin Temple? Why are you going there?” I tell them there’s a small festival happening where men dress up as women and then run about the streets. He looks at me with a blank expression and points down the road.

I turn down a side street beside a motorbike dealership and see incense rising from behind a wall. As I get closer I can hear sporadic chattering and the temple comes into view. About 20 people are milling about outside a makeshift marquee. I’m the only foreigner, and as usual at these types of small local events people give me friendly but inquisitive looks, surprised that I’m there. As I stand in the temple grounds looking about, a guy comes up to me and asks where I’m from, beckoning me over to the marquee and ushering a lady to give me something to eat. She ladles me out a bowl of nikujaga – a potato and meat stew – and the guy eagerly watches me eat, waiting for my predictable cries of “oishii!” (“It’s delicious!”)

As it turns out, this particular guy is in the know and has designed a crudely printed pamphlet all about the festival, not dissimilar to a fanzine you might see at a punk show. He hands me one, pointing at the grainy pictures of men dressed in colourful kimono running through the streets. The origins of Ikazuchi no Daihannya are disputed, even amongst Japanese people.

Legend tells of a priest from Shinzoin temple who went from house to house carrying ancient scrolls to chase evil spirits away when cholera struck towards the end of the Edo period. Another legend tells of a man who lived in the district who dressed in women’s kimonos to drive away evil spirits for his sister who was suffering from tuberculosis. Japan has a history of cross-dressing with traditional kabuki theatre – and so there are other similar festivals to this. But this one – running from house to house – is unique.

My new friend suddenly grabs me by the arm and leads me across the street to a suburban area where the participants of this year’s event are waiting. Everyone is in good spirits and taking group photos, with many of the guys wearing ridiculously over-the-top wigs and makeup. When it’s time to go, the leader of the group sharply blows a whistle and everyone begins to run down towards the temple, chanting rhythmically – the matsuri (festival) is about to begin.

Standing on the steps of the temple, the 50-or-so participants fix their kimono, pose for photos and then kanpai as a group, sharing a huge bottle of sake. Once again the whistle blows and they take to the streets, running down the middle of the road as policemen redirect traffic and tell buses to wait.

The group begins to slow outside a house, chanting in unison and announcing that they will enter the property to cleanse away any evil spirits. The owners of house are expecting us, with beers and snacks laid out. A few of the guys are already on their way to being drunk and it’s not even 10am. The garden we are in is beautiful, with perfectly manicured trees and an old wooden house watching over us. After a short time the procession moves on and the whole thing repeats itself; the group running down the road to the next house, the next load of snacks and the next drink. Just two hours previous I had been walking along a deserted freeway alone, now I was running wildly from house to house with men dressed flamboyantly (and beautifully) in what are traditionally women’s clothes.