As blogger Lynn Allmon pointed out in a recent post, the beginning of January is the time for pilgrimages to seek good fortune from the Shichifukujin (七福神), or Seven Lucky Gods. Osaka is certainly no exception. From January 9th to the 11th, the area around Namba City is packed with yatai stands and massive crowds. This is what locals call “Ebessan.”
The yatai food stands and game stalls line the road all the way to the Imamiya Ebisu shrine. There are so many stalls, they spill over into the maze of side streets. Luckily, the massive waves of pilgrims form a sort of current to pull you along in the right direction. If you go with the flow, you are not likely to get lost. Entrances and exits are clearly marked and there are police and security everywhere if you need them.
If you want to experience Japanese yatai food at its best and worst, this festival has everything under the sun in multiples. Due to so many yatai serving the same food, it’s good to have an idea of what you want. It’s best to be picky. Don’t just get the first version you see. Perhaps the vendor uses too much dough or not enough sauce. Check out their work before buying the food. I learned this the hard way.
Upon spotting my favorite foods advertised, I tore through the crowds, bouncing from yatai to yatai like an overexcited puppy. I tried to be picky and was mostly successful at finding great vendors, but I wasn’t as careful as I should’ve been. Earlier in the pilgrimage, my husband and I had shared a wonderful freshly made corn dog. The elderly woman stood behind the counter dipping dogs in corn bread batter and smiling at everyone.
She handed us a corn dog fresh from the frier, and it was everything we were hoping for. It ran circles around the typical convenience store or frozen variety. Wanting a second helping, we stopped at another yatai. This one was advertising チーズドッグ (cheese dog), so my husband and I were excited to try this new variation. We bought the breaded lump on a stick without a second thought. As we bit into it, we realized that there was a tragic misunderstanding. We had bought a peppery processed cheese stick covered in batter. There was no dog in the cheese dog. In hindsight, it would have been wiser to check what that vendor considered a cheese dog.
As you get your fill of food, be aware that prices can vary considerably and that tented areas with seating often have additional seating fees. Many do not have their prices openly on display, so be careful. As you get closer to the shrine, there are rows and rows of Ebisu displays and charms for sale. The booths are nearly two stories tall, with the merchants using large hooks to retrieve high up items. Be careful again, as the prices are not usually displayed and even the smallest charms can be more than 1000 yen. If you want an inexpensive keepsake, there are free fukusasa, or lucky bamboo branches, at the shrine. Of course, there is still a high demand for the very expensive Ebisu displays.
The crowds thicken and business people in suits converge in company packs as you approach the shrine. Unlike most festivals, this is a work event for many companies. The large and very expensive Ebisu displays are mostly bought by company groups, which is why there are so many rows of massive booths selling the seemingly overpriced displays. You may wonder why companies would consider this god so important, especially since the god of fortune and business is Daikokuten, not Ebisu.
Each of the Shichifukujin have their own unique significance, but Ebisu, or Yebisu, is particularly unique to Japan. While most of the Shichifukujin were modified from imported Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist deities, Ebisu is the only one of the seven whose origins are entirely Japanese. He is the god of fishermen, workers, and healthy children. Due to the importance of these points on the Japanese economy throughout history, Ebisu is also considered important to business and fortune, despite that role being that of Daikokuten. Because of the overlap between the two deities, they are sometimes said to be father and son and are often displayed together. In this festival, the only focus is Ebisu.
Ebisu-sama is shortened to Ebessan in western Japanese dialects. There’s even a Japanese professional wrestler named Ebessan who dresses up as the deity. To add some confusion to this, the festival is also called Ebessan, and referred to as an event. Not ending there, Imamiya Ebisu Shrine is also referred to as Ebessan. Despite the confusing nomenclature, all Osakans understand where you want to go and what you want to do if you mention Ebessan. There are also other Ebessan festivals all over western Japan, but when you are in Osaka, this is the one that stands out above the rest.