Join the global St. Patrick’s Day party

Leprechauns, pipers and dancers bring Irish cheer to central Tokyo


How would you like to spend Sunday afternoon dancing jigs to Irish pipes? Or marching with a group of baton-twirling cheerleaders? Or making friends with leprechauns?

They’ll all be there at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade along Omotesando this weekend — and so will thousands of other people as well. The parade, which is held every year, is a whole day of Irish-themed fun and games — but you don’t have to be Irish to take part.

All kinds of paraders are welcome — four-legged ones as well, like the Irish setters with green ribbons around their necks. You can take part, too: Stand along the road this Sunday and wave like crazy as the parade comes down the street — or step forward and join in.

This is Tokyo’s 11th St. Patrick’s Day parade. Who is St. Patrick? St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. He was born in England, more than 1,600 years ago, but spent most of his life in Ireland, converting the people to Christianity. He is believed to have died on March 17. So, on that day every year, Irish people all over the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

More than just the anniversary of the saint’s death, this is also a time to celebrate all things Irish, from song and dance to food and drink. Every year, parades are held on March 17 all over the world — in Dublin, Ireland’s capital, but also in cities across the United States as well as in Seoul and Tokyo. So by joining the parade, you will be part of a worldwide celebration.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland, but in the United States. Irish soldiers serving in the British military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762. The parade helped the soldiers, so far from home, to reconnect with their Irish roots.

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday. Irish people traditionally go to church to attend Mass in the morning, followed by the parade that takes place nearly everywhere. People dance, drink and feast — especially on traditional food like Irish bacon and cabbage. Plays, concerts, treasure hunts — all these events make March 17 a day to have fun and to showcase Irish culture to the rest of the world.

In Tokyo, the parade is part of the Ireland Festival that first started in 1992 in Roppongi. For the last few years, it’s been taking place along Omotesando, but it’s always been organized by the same group of Japanese and Irish volunteers called Irish Network Japan, with the support of the Irish Embassy.

Irish Network Japan was first started in 1989 by a group of Irish engineers working in Tokyo. They’d meet regularly at Bewley’s Cafe in Harajuku (the cafe’s been renamed Scruffy Murphy’s), because that was the only place in the city serving Guinness. Guinness is very popular among the Irish. In fact, it is one of the biggest sponsors of the parade. You’ll see a Guinness float in the parade. And what do you think it looks like? A giant pint of stout!

Derek Fitzgerald, chairman of INJ, estimates that last year there were about 1,000 people in the parade, and between 6,000 and 7,000 people watching. He expects even more people to turn up and take part this year. Weather is a big factor, Fitzgerald warns, but it looks like clear skies this weekend.

Perhaps St. Patrick’s worked his magic to keep the rain away. After all, Irish folklore has many stories of him performing all kinds of wonders. One legend has the saint raising someone from the dead. According to another, he drove all the snakes from Ireland.

The only thing being driven away at the parade this weekend is the buses and cars. Omotesando will be closed to traffic so people can stand along the street safely and enjoy the parade.

Look out for the two pipe bands — the Tokyo Pipe Band and the U.S. Army band. Also entertaining the crowds will be two marching bands, Tokyo Daigaku Batons Organization and Nihon Daigaku Marching Band, as well as a cheerleaders group from Senshu Daigaku. There are two Irish dance groups, Celtic Spice and — try pronouncing this, it’s Gaelic — Ceomhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, otherwise known as CCE. They’ll be performing Irish jigs and reels. In Tokyo, the celebration isn’t that Irish anymore — in a break with tradition, a Japanese samba group from Izumo will also be sashaying down the road.

As the Irish soccer team will be training in Chiba and playing one of their matches in Yokohama for the World Cup, a Japanese welcoming committee from these two cities will turn up dressed in soccer gear. One giant float will represent a coracle, a round Irish fishing boat traditionally made of animal skins stretched over a wooden frame.

And of course, you’ll see people in traditional Irish clothes — kilts, tweed jackets and peaked caps. And someone dressed as St. Patrick himself. If you’re lucky enough, you might be near the reception desk when free T-shirts are given out. There’ll also be free balloons, Irish flags and shamrocks for everyone.

The shamrock — any clover-like plant with leaflets in groups of three — is the emblem of Ireland. It’s linked to St. Patrick, too. One Easter Sunday, the story goes, St. Patrick plucked a shamrock from the ground and used its three-part leaf on a single stem to explain the difficult Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all distinct elements of the same divine entity.

If you want to make this an all-Irish weekend, you could go to Yokohama on Saturday to enjoy an Irish sports day. This is the perfect opportunity to get your parents playing all kinds of crazy games — hurling, which is like field hockey except that the ball is flung into the air rather than rolled along the ground; and Gaelic football, a mix of soccer and rugby. You could get your face painted and have your picture taken with the clowns. Or how about trying your luck at the sack race, the wheelbarrow race, the three-legged race and a shamrock hunt? We’ve been told that there are exciting prizes to win.

So try chasing some leprechauns this weekend. According to Irish folklore, they’re fairies who reveal a buried pot of gold to anyone who catches them. Good luck!

The 11th St. Patrick’s Day Parade is at Omotesando, March 17, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It starts from the police box opposite the Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku. The Irish Sports Day is in Yokohama, March 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. The closest station is Yamate Station on the JR Negishi Line or the Keihin Tohoku Line.

About the land of leprechauns

* Where: Ireland is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, made up of the Republic of Ireland, called Eire in Gaelic, with Dublin as its capital, and Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom.

* The people: The Irish are descendants primarily of the ancient Celts, but the Vikings, Normans and English contributed to their ethnic character.

* Language: Irish Gaelic and English are the official languages. Irish people often speak English with a soft accent called a brogue.

* Religion: About 96 percent of the people are Roman Catholics.

* History: The first inhabitants were hunters and fishers who arrived on the eastern coast from the European mainland about 8,000 years ago. The Celts, who came in about 300 B.C., dominated the earlier peoples, mainly because they knew how to work with iron. The English conquest of Ireland began when a local ruler asked King Henry II to help him regain his kingdom. Henry II’s barons ended up seizing parts of the kingdom and holding them as fiefs of the crown. There followed a long period of English rule. During the late 1800s, some Irish people began to demand home rule for their country, but the Protestants in Ulster in the north opposed it because they were afraid that a Catholic parliament would be formed. In 1920, Ireland was partitioned into its present two parts after an uprising against rule from London. In 1949, Eire became the independent republic, but Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom.