Will you be in Tokyo in April? Are you ready to watch the cutest festival there ever was? The Nakizumo festival is all about babies and sumo wrestlers.
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One reason I love living in Japan is the opportunity to witness, and sometimes even join in, on some cultural activities that are completely different than anything I’ve known or experienced. That’s why I couldn’t wait to go to the Japanese spring celebration called the “baby crying festival” or the Nakizumo Festival.
In my culture, we Americans, don’t want our babies to cry. We are embarrassed if we are out in public and the baby starts to make noise, any noise. “Children should be seen and not heard,” right? Needless to say, I was intrigued that in Japan, there is an entire day set up to make the babies wail. And what a festive atmosphere it is!
What is the Nakizumo Festival (泣き相撲) ?
One ubiquitous feeling around the world, is that parents want their children to be healthy. This is no secret. It’s also no secret that for centuries, humans have made amulets, prayed, baptized, and developed many rituals and ceremonies to ensure their offspring are healthy.
In Japan one way this is done is through the Nakizumo festival. It’s common thought that the healthiest people in Japan are sumo wrestlers who spend their entire lives eating right, exercising, and living a spirtual life. So whom better to help prepare your child be healthy and strong than a sumo wrestler?
These hulks of human flesh are given the babies to hold and they then try to make them cry as quickly and easily as possible. Just like in sumo, two babies are brought into the sacred circle, the dohyo, where the wrestler holds up the baby until one of them cries. The first baby to cry is the winner. If both start crying at the same time, the louder baby wins.
Where Are the Crying Baby Contests?
Nakizumo festivals are held all over the country, but it’s difficult to find out exactly when. Here are three festivals that are very popular.
Spring – Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo
The Nakizumo festival we attended, and probably the easiest one to get to for most people, is at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This Crying Sumo fest takes place the last Sunday in April, when the weather is getting warmer and it’s really pleasant to be outside, which is important for the scantily clad sumo wrestlers and some of the babies who don’t have much on.
Fall – Ikiko Shrine in Kanuma
Legend has it that the Nakizumo festival got its start at the Ikiko Shrine over 400 years ago (source). In fact, the name “Ikiko” means “child can be restored to life.” The name came after a miracle brought back a child who’d died of small pox a mere ten years after the shrine was built.
Whether this legend is true or not doesn’t negate the fact that many people all over the country now like to follow the custom of having a sumo wrestler facilitate making their child cry.
To attend the festival at Ikiko, travel to Kanuma on the first Sunday after September 19th each year. The festival runs from 9:00-4:00. Parents can sign their children up the very day of the festival for a bit more of a cost than if they pre-registered.
Fall – Yamajioji temple in Wakayama
The Wakayama Nakizumo festival seems to be run a little differently than the others, and the babies are just put in the ring of sand to compete. If you are in the Kainan area on the second Sunday in October, it would be well worth checking this one out.
What Can I Expect at the Festival?
“Naku ko wa Sodatsu” which roughly translates to “the crying child grows up,” and of course that is the goal of the festival, to be healthy and strong and grow up!
As I was researching this article, I found that like the shrines they are held in, each Nakizumo festival puts its own spin on the ritual. In smaller, less populated places there is perhaps more time to be playful and see what the babies will do on their own.
However, as Sensoji is such a large temple in the middle of Tokyo I felt they had less time to be as playful. Don’t get me wrong, the entire ritual is playful. Everyone from the referee to the audience is there for the cute kids and the happy families, but there just wasn’t too much time to wait for the babies to comply, so a winner would be announced and it was on to the next pair right away.
Before the Ceremony
At Sensoji, there are two rounds of ceremonies, one starting about 11:00 AM and one at about 2:30 PM. Parents start arriving at least an hour beforehand. They check in, and the babies are given a participation sash. Some put it on their children and some didn’t.
Parents dressed up their children in all kinds of clothes. Some took the “baby sumo” theme very literally and dressed their baby like a sumo. Some dressed them in costumes, like a Marvel character or Monkichi. Most just dressed them up in their best clothes, some more traditional than others. No matter what the babies were wearing, they were all adorable.
Families sat their babies on the stage, and lots of photos were taken. Then the call to line up was put out.
The first part of the ceremony was to line up every baby with one parent. The parade was led by the smiling referee. They walked around the stage a few times, holding up the babies to the audience, pride beaming on everyone’s faces.
The Baby Crying Competition
To begin, the announcer calls up two babies and the sumo wrestlers go pick them up from their parents. The parents happily turn over their infant or toddler to the hulking, near naked men.
The sumos climb back up on the stage and side by side, lift the baby, pretend to drop the baby, jostle the baby, anything to entice them to cry. Some babies have started crying as soon as they are handed over, but really not that many. Most hold out a minute or so and then start wailing.
However, some never cry and now the referee calls in the reinforcements. These are men sitting on the sidelines with scary masks in their hands. The masks are supposed to be bird demons, called “tengu,” and they are a bit scary (source).
The men with the masks don’t really want to scare the babies, but they do their best to gently make them start to cry. Again on some it works, and on some, nothing works.
The rules for this ritual is that the babies are in competition with each other, and the first one that cries wins. If they are both crying, the loudest wins. If neither cries, well, they don’t like that. I only saw it happen once. These two happy-go-lucky toddlers just wouldn’t be scared. Too darn cute!
Can My Baby Participate in the Baby Cry Ritual?
Each shrine holds the baby registration differently. In many places, just showing up and paying the fee is sufficient on the day of the ceremony. However, at Sensoji there are only about 160 slots for the entire day, and as you can imagine there is high competition for these slots.
In order to make it as fair as possible, parents must sign up for a lottery which costs about 150,000 Yen per child. Then the week before the ceremony, if they received a slot they are contacted.
If you are interested in participating, I would try to find a smaller shrine to do so.
How to Get To The Festival
Sensoji is one of the most iconic temples to visit in Tokyo, so it’s very easy to find. Many lines have stops in Asakusa, and from the station it’s about an 8 minute walk to the temple. It’s very easy to just follow the crowd. You know you are there when you see the huge red lanterns.
To find the Nakizumo ceremony, walk straight back and behind the temple. You will typically fight lots of crowds getting to the temple area, but once you walk around to the backside, it calms down considerably. The day we were there, there were thousands at the temple, but only a couple of hundred at the ceremony. It was much smaller than I expected.
Where to Stay in Asakusa
There are over 300 hotels in the very popular Asakusa area, and I would say it’s a great place to stay for all of your Tokyo vacation.
We like to stay in Dormy Inns and there is one in Asakusa that we can recommend. The Dormy Inn Express has a foot bath, onsen, pajamas, tatami floors, and is a perfect peaceful Japanese hotel. Plus the price is right!
Where to Eat in Asakusa
There are so many restaurants in this area as well. Right by the temple, you will find street food, small izakayas, and tiny restaurants all the way up to large, expensive restaurants.
Here’s a few we can recommend:
- Sometaro – Okonomiyaki – 2 Chome-2-2 Nishiasakusa, Taito City
- Yoroiya Ramen – 1 Chome-36-7 Asakusa, Taito City
- Tendon Tenya – Tempura – 1 Chome-9-2 Asakusa, Taito City
Other Things to Do Nearby
- Tokyo Skytree
- Kappabashi Street
- Ueno Park
If you are looking for a true look into Japanese culture, and you enjoy a bit of fun and babies, you will love the Nakizumo Festival. Sumo wrestlers, men in masks and richly decorated costumes, and but babies. How can this not be a blast?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.