tenjin matsuri

09Aug05

25 July, 2005

There is no real equivalent to the matsuri in the United States. Tenjin Matsuri is one of Japan’s three largest festivals and over a million people attend the closing day celebrations, which are accompanied by a display of thousands of fireworks that continues for several hours into the night. This matsuri is a two day event and is centered at Tenmangu Shrine in central Osaka. The second day is the most popular day of the festival and the highlight is a procession from Tenmangu Shrine to Tenjinbashi (Tenjin Bridge) in which priests carry the sacred mikoshi, or portable shrines. After reaching the bridge the procession moves to the water and a river procession of over a hundred brightly decorated boats travels from the Dojima River to the Okawa river. Apparently the festival is over a thousand years old and, according to Jeff M. (of farstrider.net) “was originally celebrated as a rite of purification and to commemorate the deification or godhood of Michizane Sugawara”:

The shrine from where this ceremony starts, was built in the year 949 when a series of disasters was believed to be caused by Michizane Sugawara, shortly after his death. It was thought that his spirit had taken the form of Raijin, the god of thunder, and this shrine was built to appease him. The disasters abated after he was enshrined at Tenmangu, and because he was a great scholar he is now worshipped as a god of learning.

Sadly, I was unable to make it to the procession itself because I was busy working at that other temple of learning, Osaka University, where my students were busy giving their final presentations. In fact, because of my lack of foresight, I missed out on a chance to actually be on one of the riverboats and watch the procession and the fireworks from the water. Hopefully there will be an Osaka University riverboat again next year, and I’ll make sure and plan ahead so I can cancel my classes for the matsuri. I might also have to do something of the sort in late January, because I have a desperate urge to go to the Sapporo Snow Festival, which I just learned about from my students.

Although Richard and I had plans to go to the matsuri in the evening, we almost didn’t end up going because the gods of weather forecasting were predicting the appearance of Raijin’s cousin, the typhoon. In fact, this typhoon warning turned out to be completely bogus — there was a little bit of wind, which helped out with the heat of Japanese summer, but not even a drop of rain, and no sign of a storm.

Or rather, if there was a storm, it was a storm of people. A weather of people in great currents moving through the architecture of the city. At Ishibashi, where Richard and I boarded the Takarazuka line, the train was crowded with people wearing yukata (a kind of light, cotton kimono), the summer festival wear of Japan. Women’s yukata especially are exquisitely beautiful and the cloth is dyed in a variety of patterns that range from more traditional seasonal prints, to contemporary variations on these patterns. Unlike men’s yukata, which are primarily indigo, black, gray, and white, women’s yukata are brightly colored and often accented by obis that are chosen for their complimentary qualities. Even the cheap yukata from Uniqlo are outstanding. Both men and women wear yukata with geta (traditional Japanese wooden shoes), though some of the cooler guys like to shuffle around in flip-flops for the casual yukata look. And don’t get the idea that somehow everyone in yukata at the matsuri is engaging in a style that is staid and traditional. There is a very contemporary sense of yukata cool. Osaka is the home of the rocker yukata look where young women with outrageous hair, elaborate make-up, and glamour-size earrings walk around with orange-haired Osaka rocker boys with pierced ears and sunglasses. Of course, there are plenty of people styling the traditional yukata look as well, and also plenty of people who aren’t wearing yukata at all (I would guess that only about 10% of the men were wearing yukata). Because so many people are in yukata and geta, and because these clothes are only worn on special occasions, the city feels truly carnivalesque, showing its otherside city, the city of festival spirits.

This sense of festival was immediately apparent as Richard and I stepped off the train and began to head toward Tenjinbashi. We were in a vast crowd, being directed toward the river by lines of city workers with bullhorns and blinking red LED vests. Richard and I slowly worked our way across Tenjinbashi, moving shoulder to shoulder in the currents of people, past rows of paper lanterns, and over lines of illuminated barges that made their way under the bridge while the passengers on board sang and chanted. As we approached the end of the bridge the fireworks began and the entire crowd turned at once to watch the opening bursts. The illumination of the sky by fireworks acted as the celestial analog to the lines of torches lining the banks of the river, the lantern boats moving through the water, and the enormous flaming pyre in the center of the river that produced bursts of flame as boats passed nearby.

Richard and I spent hours walking up and down the arcades along both sides of the river, watching the barges, watching other strollers, and eating the incredible festival food available at matsuri (yaki-soba, okonomiyaki, grilled fish on sticks, grilled corn, takoyaki, fresh fruit, candied apples, cherries, and strawberries, and etc. Eventually we cut across a bend in the river to walk through Richard’s old neighborhood (he taught English here in 1996), crossed another bridge, and, at the very outskirts of the matsuri, came across the piers where the barges where beginning to park as the river parade was coming to its close. It was satisfying to watch the workers begin to disassemble the barge lighting — it was almost a kind of narrative cap for the evening, a perfect festival dénouement. The actual dénouement consisted of the long, long walk that Richard and I took back to the station at close to midnight. We had gone a lot further along the river than we had supposed because of the beautiful night and the draw of the matsuri arcades.

Click here to see some fantastic photographs of the daytime portion of Tenjin Matsuri, as well as a more extended description of the festival rites.

A boat full of boisterous matsuri goers. Taken from Tenjinbashi.

This photo cannot begin to convey the size of the crowd that comes out for Tenjin Matsuri. I took this during a breather when I had a little space to actually take a picture. Over one million people come out for Tenjin Matsuri every year, though I think that Richard and I only bumped into 867,549 of them.

Just in case you didn’t know it, you should know that Japanese festival food is some of the best ever. No frozen corndogs here.

A nice woman in a beautiful yukata who was taking crowd pictures. I figured she wouldn’t mind if I took her photo, and I was right.

A view of Tenjin-bashi where the matsuri parade ends up. The bridge was so packed with people when this picture was taken that it took about 20 minutes to get across it.

It’s really hard to give a proper idea of just how big this flaming pyre really was. It was anchored in the middle of the river, burning continuously through the night. Whenever a boat would go by, the fire tender (you can see him in silhouette) would take a bucket on the end of a pole, dip it in a vat of fiery substance, and throw the bucket on the pyre. This resulted in enormous and delightful fireballs, and roars of approval from the crowd.

Two cool kids working the fair. I bought candied apples from them.

This is a close-up of one of hundreds of boats that were on the river for the matsuri. Boat activities seemed to consist of eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and watching fireworks. My favorite boats were the boisterous boats, the ones that would come close to the shore in order to start chants with the crowd.

This lantern barge was anchored in the middle of the river, essentially acting as a stage for the performance of traditional courtly music and dancing.

Taking apart one of the boats after the matsuri is over.

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