In the three years since I first moved to Osaka, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few new and exciting experiences. I’ve been to my first baseball game. I’ve watched Japan play at the World Cup in a special “fanzone” with exuberant local supporters. And I’ve attended numerous regional festivals, local events and exhibitions.
On July 25, however, I had the chance to participate in the granddaddy celebration of them all. The Tenjin matsuri, or the Festival of the Gods, has a reputation as the jewel in the crown of the Kansai region’s summer festival season going back centuries. And it certainly didn’t fall short on spectacle. The events of this annual two-day festival reached their climax on Monday evening, though there had been something of a party atmosphere going on throughout Osaka for most of the weekend. Yatai food stalls seemed to be springing up everywhere, lots of people were going around the streets in their colorful summer yukata (light cotton kimono) enjoying the festivities
The Tenjin matsuri takes place over over two days each year, with Yomiyasai, a series of rituals, dances and parades centered around the Tenjimbashi and Tenmangu areas of the city taking place on July 24. The Rikutogyo and Funatogyo parades take place on the afternoon and evening of July 25, bringing the festival to a close.
Yomiyasai was as bright and exuberant as one would expect. If you’ve attended any festivals in Japan before, then you’ll no doubt be familiar with mikoshi (portable shrine) processions. It’s loud, it’s colorful and it’s a welcome reminder of everything that is good about Japanese traditional art and culture.
Things kicked into high gear the following afternoon, with the Rikutogyo procession. This parade began at about 3:30 p.m. It was a joy to witness over 3,000 performers chanting, singing, dancing and just generally enjoying themselves. It’s also encouraging for the future of Japan to see so many younger people getting so actively involved in this event. In recent times, as Japan’s population continues to age and its younger generations appear to be shunning some of the values and traditions of their elders, it is heartening to see so many children and young people not only taking part in local festivals but also clearly enjoying doing so.
As the evening moved on and the hot, humid sun started to give way to the gentle breeze of dusk, it was time for me and my companion to head on to the next part of our evening, the Funatogyo. This is a procession with a difference and one that takes full advantage of using the Okawa — the river that cuts through the city.
Many of the mikoshi and other artifacts that have just passed through the Rikutogyo parade were placed onto large boats for a similar parade along the river. As the sun set and the moon emerged in the sky, the boats became beautifully illuminated, their lights reflecting gracefully off of the rivers dark, mysterious waters.
Vast crowds gathered on the nearby Tenmabashi Bridge as the vessels floated by. Of course, no Japanese festival is complete without a bit of audience participation, and the Tenjin matsuri is no exception.
As each boat passed by our perch in the reserved seating area, our hosts for the evening greeted the ships and crews over the slightly loud and tinny P.A. system. We then began what was to become a recurring ritual throughout the evening. The people on the boat shouted, “Uchima-sho!” (Let’s clap!”) and we rapidly clapped our hands twice, they then shouted “Mo hitotsu-se!” (“One more time!”) and we clapped twice again. Finally, they shouted, “Iwote sando!” (“Three more times!”) and we give three, final celebratory claps. The other non-Japanese people in our section of the audience were quick to pick up the rhythm, though they did seem to get bored of it all by the time the fourth or fifth ship came past.
Then came the final spectacle of the evening: the hanabi (fireworks) launched from the river. And this is when — for us, at least — things hit a bit of an anti-climactic note.
Now, there is an old saying back in my hometown Glasgow, which goes: “You should never bite the hand that feeds you.” I was lucky enough to have been generously given a couple of complimentary tickets — ordinarily priced at ¥6,000 — for seating in a special “reserved” seating area. That being said, had I actually paid for the view I was given, I would not have been best pleased, as indeed many people around me were not.
Our seating was on the riverbank just off to the left of the Tenmabashi Bridge. Being on the riverside should have afforded us a great view of the boat parade, but poor lighting, overgrown trees and a seating layout which seemed to have been created with the pure premise of cramming in as many bodies as possible led to a seriously obscured view. As for the fireworks, well I’m sure they were great judging from the loud booms and the reaction of the spectators, but unfortunately, they were a couple of kilometers away in Sakuranomiya, obscured again by trees and several high-rise buildings.
I guess my overall impression of my first visit to the Tenjin matsuri is a bit like my first memory of going to a big soccer game, The Scottish Cup Final, back in Scotland when I was a child: I couldn’t see much, but the atmosphere was fantastic and it was nice just to be able to tell my friends I was there.
I’ll certainly do the Tenjin matsuri again next year, it’s a fabulous experience and a perfect excuse to get out and revel in some ancient Japanese cultural festivities. Next time, though, to get the most out of it, I’ll approach it the old-fashioned way. I’ll mingle with the crowds and when the time comes I’ll search out my own vantage point to watch with friends new and old, grab a few drinks and just soak up the incredible atmosphere.
The Osaka Tenjin matsuri happens every year on July 24 and July 25.