tenjin matsuri, 2006


25 July, 2006

As I wrote last year:

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, 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 temple of learning, Osaka Daigaku, 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, when I’ll make sure and plan ahead so I can cancel my classes for the matsuri.

Incredibly, I was lucky enough to actually be able to get onto the Osaka University boat (or perhaps ‘barge’ would be a more accurate term) this year. The boat, which is reserved for faculty and special guests, costs about $300 a head for admission, but — since riding on a boat in the Tenjin Matsuri river procession is a bit like riding on a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float — this seems cheap for such a once-in-a-lifetime event. Plus you get a bento from an incredibly fancy and famous restaurant that will remain unnamed since I seem to have misplaced that particular memory. I went with Murakami-sensei and his wife, and both Murakami-sensei and myself wore yukata, since that’s what people do for festivals. Of course, I ran into a couple of my students on the way to the train station, and they certainly seemed amused to see me clunking down the street in geta, but it’s fun to wear geta every once in a while — especially during the summer when the clacking of the wood against the paving seems to go so well with the ecstatic and insane buzzing of the cicadas.

I think there were somewhere between one hundred and two hundred people on the Osaka University boat, all of us ushered into preassigned seats. Since I assumed that I would end up with a seat somewhere in the middle of the boat, with only an occasional opportunity to take a decent photograph, I brought the digital camera and left the Voigtlander at home. Which was a mistake since — of course! — I ended up getting seated right at the edge of the barge in a perfect position for river photography.

And here are the photographs:

Although there was initially the threat of rain, the day cleared up and the sky turned blue. This is a photograph of the top portion of the Osaka University standard. Those two characters at the top say “Osaka.”

This woman was in charge of the boat right next to ours. In fact, the two barges were moored together so that if you wanted to get to the second barge you had to walk through the Osaka U. barge first.

Our on-board entertainment consisted of a pair of announcers who managed to keep up their banter for the entirety of the three-hour trip, a really great jazz trio made up of Osaka University students, and the Osaka University cheerleading squad (with portable band). Unlike the States, where male cheerleaders are basically the invisible adjuncts to cheerleading’s female stars, here the women played second fiddle to the boys in the white gloves. The men were totally serious (and almost semi-militant) about their cheerleading, which was very precise, very masculine, and very gestural. The women smiled, did leg-kicks and tossed their pom-poms around. In fact, while looking through the Osaka University NOW! magazine that we get a few times a year, I discovered that the Osaka U. cheerleading squad had actually gone to Tenmangu Shrine itself and performed in front of the shrine before the river procession began. This makes them the cheerleaders of the gods. I’m not quite sure what such a routine might look like, but I can certainly imagine: “Tenjin! Tenjin! Rah! Rah! Rah! / Matsuri! Matsuri! Sis-boom-bah!”

Here’s a view of the barge that was right next to ours, being pushed out into the river as the parade began. Our barge, which was pulled by a small green boat, looked almost identical. It became quickly evident that if you were working on the river, the thing to do was to invite all of the family and friends that you could to ride on your boat and watch the parade.

I’m still not sure if there was only one enormous lantern barge on the river, or several, but in any case we seemed to repeatedly keep encountering it (or them). In fact, I do think there was more than one, and that this one was reserved as a platform for traditional dance.

Dancers on the lantern barge.

Here’s a barge being pulled in front of a pair of large apartment buildings. What you can’t really get from this photo is the fact that most of the balconies of any building that was along the river were stuffed with people. As were any rooms in any buildings with good views. There was also a building that we passed that had an entire floor that was dedicated to photographers, who stood silhouetted against the windows with the most enormous lenses and tripods.

Fireworks are a major feature of Tenjin Matsuri, and they are released in profligate volleys from several different locations along the river. Because of this, the best view of the fireworks is from the river itself, and they appear suddenly in the night sky ahead of you, behind you, flying from the riverbanks, or exploding quickly and unexpectedly above your head.

More hanabi.

A riverboat passing in front of a volley of fireworks. The fireworks look a bit thin in these photographs, but they were actually quite thick.

Here the Osaka University cheerleaders perform as we pass under one of Osaka’s many famous bridges. As you can see, the bridge is packed with people, all of who smile, cheer, and wave as you pass underneath. Also, there are several rail bridges that cross the river, and trains come to a halt on the bridges as boats pass below. I thought that this was a special festival stop made by train drivers to give their passengers a good view, but then I heard one of our two announcers apologizing to the train as we passed below (“Sorry JR! Sorry!”). Later I realized that the reason the trains stop as boats pass below is to avoid noise and debris.

This year, because of a heavy rainy season, the river was exceptionally high. This meant that at several of the bridges there was very little headroom, and boats had to pass cautiously beneath. Because of the excessively high river, the procession was slower than usual, which suited me fine since I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the water.

How close is the bottom of the bridge? That’s Murakami-sensei reaching up to touch it.

One of our on-board spotlights.

This is the most awesome boat ever. The bonfire boat. Stationed in the middle of the river, it’s manned by a guy with a bucket-ladle on the end of a long, long stick. When boats come near, he scoops the ladle into a vat of what I assume is gasoline, and then tosses a bucketful onto the fire. This results in a fireball of cumular proportions, which bounces some 20 feet into the air. You can feel the blast of heat as you go by, and I can only imagine the kind of heat that the bucketeer must be contending with. I think the last time I felt heat like this was when Dan poured a half-gallon or so of gasoline onto the barbecue pit at our house-warming pig roast and the flames licked up into the treetops when he threw the match in. I’m still amazed that nothing burned down.

One of the sacred procession boats.

Another lantern barge (maybe a commercial one?).

Shinto priestesses, riding on a lantern barge.

Another view of the same lantern barge.

And here’s the barge as it passes down the river and into a bank of fireworks. I like this shot because it gives some sense of the landscape of the event. If you look closely, you can see that the riverbanks are lined with torches. Behind this line of torches are the food stalls (which line the river for miles) and the hundreds of thousands of people who are busy drinking, and feasting, and watching the passing of the boats.

Here’s a close view of one of the mikoshi, the houses of the gods. Apparently, the gods get bored — it’s no fun to be enshrined all the time — and so they get taken out from time to time so they can enjoy themselves. The only time the two announcers on our boat would be quiet would be when we passed one of the mikoshi on the river. At that point, the entire boat would go silent and dark, and we would drift by the mikoshi. While most of the procession feels like a party, with boats clapping, and chanting, and jazzing, and cheerleading to one another, when the mikoshi were present there was a sense of quiet awe that would permeate the boat. The golden houses of the gods.

In addition to the bonfire boat, there were many smaller torch boats stationed here and there along the procession route. I think this one probably has Exxon-Mobil sponsorship.

Another sacred procession boat. This one flew by quickly, its bright lanterns receding into the distance, downriver.

This is a really nice site that covers the entire Tenjin Matsuri.

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.

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