Sennin Gyoretsu

Sennin Gyoretsu

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: May 17-18
Where Celebrated: Nikko, Japan
Symbols and Customs: Fox Masks, Hawks, Lions, Mirrors, Samurai


Also known as Toshogu Haru-No-Taisai (Great Spring Festival of the Toshogu Shrine) or the Procession of 1,000 People, Sennin Gyoretsu commemorates the reburial of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the first of the Tokugawa shoguns (rulers) and the founder of the powerful Tokugawa shogunate. When Ieyasu died, he requested that his remains be transferred to a simply built mausoleum in Nikko. His grandson, Iemitsu, erected an elaborate shrine to house the mausoleum, using more than a million sheets of gold and thousands of the finest builders, craftsmen, and artists to produce the vermilion-lacquered buildings known today as the Toshogu Shrine.

The original procession to the shrine took place in May 1617. It crossed the vermilion-lacquered bridge that spans the nearby Daiya River, slowly mounted the stairs that led to a long lane of cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) trees, and finally brought the body of Shogun Ieyasu to its final resting place. Today, dignitaries and descendants of the Tokugawa family gather on May 17, the day before the procession, and cross the vermilion bridge that leads to the shrine to make offerings to the three shoguns buried there (see MIRRORS ). The spirits of the shoguns are carried on portable shrines through the famous Gate of Sunlight to the nearby Futaarasan Shrine, where they remain until the next day's procession.

Sennin Gyoretsu is a holiday that commemorates a significant historical event. Peoples throughout the world commemorate such significant events in their histories through holidays and festivals. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serves not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

On May 18, huge crowds gather around the Futaarasan Shrine to await the start of the historic procession. It begins with a hundred soldiers marching in two lines, accompanied by costumed SAMURAI guardsmen. Then there are several groups of men carrying weapons-spears, bows and arrows, and old matchlock guns-followed by warriors wearing helmets with antlers and ornamental armor with bright orange shields. Among the many other groups marching are page boys dressed in hats that resemble animal heads, men wearing FOX MASKS , and Shinto priests carrying flags and streamers of all sizes, colors, and designs. The procession reaches a climax when the Shinto musicians arrive, marching in time to the beating of huge drums and the chiming of bells. Before the celebration ends and the portable shrines are returned to the Toshogu Shrine, spectators gather around the shrine's sacred stage to see the asuma-asobi dance performed and to watch an arrow-shooting ceremony (yabusame) based on a game that was played during the Kamakura period. The Procession of 1,000 People is watched by hundreds of thousands of Japanese and foreign tourists, who flock to Nikko for what is said to be the most spectacular display of ancient samurai costumes and weaponry in Japan.


Fox Masks

The men wearing fox masks who march in the procession symbolize the fox-like phantoms that are believed to live in the mountains around Nikko. It is their job to watch over the Toshogu Shrine, protecting it from damage or intruders.


During the Tokugawa shogunate, certain huntsmen were given the job of training hawks to catch small birds. The men carrying stuffed hawks in the procession represent these hawk-trainers.


Because lions are believed to ward off evil, a large group of men wearing shaggy manes march in the procession.


Metallic mirrors symbolizing the spirits of the three shoguns-Tokugawa Ieyasu, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598)-enshrined at Nikko are transferred to palanquins or portable shrines and carried on the shoulders of young men through the tree-lined streets. The main palanquin is believed to carry the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun whose remains were moved from their resting place and taken to the newly erected shrine on this day in 1617.


The samurai, whose name means to serve or guard, were members of Japan's hereditary warrior class that rose to power in the twelfth century and dominated the Japanese government until the mid-nineteenth century. They reached their position of greatest power under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and they remained powerful for more than 200 years after his death in 1616. The men who dress like ancient samurai for the Procession of 1,000 People wear the elaborate helmets and square, wing-like body armor of the Tokugawa era (1603-1867). They stand as a symbol of the bravery, honor, and loyalty that characterized this elite group at its peak.


Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Buell, Hal. Festivals of Japan. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.


Japan National Tourist Organization
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009