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#7 How to Enjoy Osaka’s Summer Festivals

Talk about Osaka's festivals, and you are talking about summer festivals

July is the season for Osaka's summer festivals.
The summer festival season in Osaka commences in July, kicking off with the Aizen Festival, an event held at a Buddhist temple called Aizen-do. Festive Matsuribayashi music can be heard almost continuously throughout the city during the month, with the Ikutama Summer Festival held at Ikukunitama Shrine on July 11th and 12th representing the first summer celebration at a Shinto place of worship. The Tenjin Matsuri Festival, one of the three biggest festive events in Japan, goes ahead at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine on July 24th and 25th, this being followed by the Sumiyoshi Festival, which is held at Sumiyoshitaisha Shrine. This last event concludes the summer festival series held in Osaka during the month of July.
There are a great number of summer festivals held in Osaka. Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto, cities that were similar in importance to Osaka during the Edo Period, mostly hold their festivals during fall and spring each year, thus avoiding the dog days of summer.

In Kyoto, there is a sense that the Gion-Matsuri Festival is the only big festival of summer, despite that city's pride in conducting approximately 100 festivals each year. In Osaka, there are approximately 100 Shinto shrines, and this equates to approximately 100 summer festivals of varying size. Indeed, the popularity of summer festivals in Osaka is perhaps related to the urban environment of the city.
Compared to rural areas, cities have higher population densities. As such, once a disease epidemic starts, it can quickly spread throughout a city. To prevent such occurrences, etc., and to purify the population, people living in urban centers such as Osaka used to actively engage in festival activities. Such activities were also associated with Shinto purification rites, such being conducted in summer. Such rites were traditionally conducted twice each year, once at the end of June in order to cover the first 6 months of the year, and once again at year's end on New Year's Eve. Such activities were held to both absolve people of their sins and to offer them a sense of purification.
Purification rites held at the end of June were specifically designed to protect against disease during the summer months. Such rites responded to a need to counter those epidemics that traditionally occurred in urban areas. Over time, such rites evolved into the traditions that became the basis of Osaka's major summer festivals. This evolution can be better understood by considering the naming of different festivals, Ikasuri Festival was originally called Ikasuri-misogi (misogi being a Japanese word for purification), the Tenjin Matsuri Festival was originally Tenman-misogi, while the Sumiyoshi Festival was just called the Oharai (rites related to the driving out of evil). As such, these names highlight the linkage between Osaka's summer festivals and Shinto purification rites.
生玉夏祭神輿宮出 生玉夏祭報知太鼓(枕太鼓)お練り
天神祭鳳神輿宮入 天神祭鉾流神事行列 天神祭龍踊

Osaka as purified ground

In addition to linkages with Shinto purification rites, Osaka, itself, could be seen as representing purified ground. If summer festivals were originally meant to be held in urban areas, then Tokyo, Kyoto, and other major cities would possess their own summer festival traditions much like those of Osaka. However, this is not the case. Indeed, the summer festivals of Osaka may be related to the fact that in ancient times, the region was felt to represent purified ground. Moreover, such feelings were something that predated the advent of modern Osaka.
Sumiyoshitaisha Shrine (also known as Settsu-Ichinomiya) is a purifying shrine, with the Sumiyoshi Festival often referred to as an exercise in oharai (the driving out of evil). The famous Tenjin Matsuri Festival is also said to be derived from a rite of divine purification, such tied to Onmyōdō (Japanese esoteric cosmology) and great warrior deities (daishogunjin). These practices are carried out around the time of the Tanabata (Vega festival) in July of each year. There is also a myth that, after a purification rite against an epidemic that was conducted in Kyoto, the Mikoshi (portable shrine) involved in the rite was carried to Osaka so as to be immersed in the purifying waters of Osaka Bay. Furthermore, on returning to the Saiku (sometimes called the Bamboo Palace) from her duties at Ise Shrine, an unwed imperial princess and her retinue is said to have detoured via Osaka in order to conduct purification rites. Such myths clearly indicate that Osaka was traditionally felt to represent purified ground, such ideas to some extent contributing to the subsequent Osaka summer festival traditions.
Festivals have unique characteristics based on their regional roots. Osaka's summer festivals are of course no different in this respect, with certain regional characteristics adding to their overall attraction. The following paragraphs touch upon the characteristics and highlights of Osaka's summer festivals.
住吉太鼓神輿大和川渡 住吉祭神輿太鼓橋渡 住吉祭夏越大祓

Danjiri floats are not just in Kishiwada

Osaka's summer festivals are driven by local residents, with different festivals showcasing attractions that are distinct to specific areas of the city. Among such distinctive festivals, the most popular are probably the parades that involve Danjiri floats. Indeed, Danjiri have risen to a position of prominence in Japan due to the Kishiwada Danjiri Parade that occurs in the fall of each year in Kishiwada City. However, the tradition itself runs deep in Osaka, with different regions offering distinctive interpretations of the Danjiri.
Danjiri can be divided into two major sub-categories. One is Kami-Danjiri (so-called "upper floats"), while the other is Shimo-Danjiri (so-called "lower floats"). Shimo-Danjiri are used in the Senshu Region of Osaka (including Kishiwada City), they being typified by the use of a shaft mechanism that helps the float structure to negotiate corners. Kami-Danjiri are used in areas other than the Senshu Region, they being typified by the use of shoulder bars that are supported by festival participants. People attending these floats corner and turn them by shouldering the load and spinning the float structure on an axis (called maimai in Japanese). Such maimai behavior is one of the highlights of Danjiri used in Osaka City. Danjiri float festivals are also accompanied by ryu-odori (dragon dances), such conducted on a stage set up in front of floats prior to parades. These dances continue during parades as well, with brave souls dancing on the roofs of moving floats, such being accompanied by music. These performances of daring-do are another festival highlight. Ryu-odori is felt to depict dragons rising to heaven, with dancers combining complicated arm movements with snake-like body gyrations. The tempo of the musical accompaniment also varies greatly, from the slow to the frenetic, even sometimes stopping. These performances show some of the energy of Osaka.
杭全神社平野郷神輿宮入 杭全神社平野郷マイマイ

Pay attention to the Taiko drum!

Taiko drums are as famous as Danjiri in Osaka's festivals. The use of such drums is widespread throughout the prefecture, with there being two major drum styles employed: Makura-Daiko drums are set upon a drum stand (dais) with red baffling material placed both before and after the drum. Futon-Daiko drums are set upon a drum stand with a cushion-like baffle placed over the drum. The Makura-Daiko configuration is much more popular in Osaka. In times past, the drum stands on which drums were placed were mobile, they being originally positioned in front of Mikoshi (portable shrines) with the drums being beaten to raise a cadence at the start of parades. These days, however, fixed drum stands are established by local residents in addition to other attractions at a central location. This is done to increase the attractiveness of festival locations. One characteristic of drums is that they are set up to allow for four-to-six people to beat them in unison. While beating the drums, participants strike poses that are both entertaining and unique to Osaka. Having drum stands that rotate and spin is another highlight.

Shishimai and Kasaodori

Shishimai (lion dancers) are also very unique. In Osaka, Shishimai are accompanied by numerous Kasaodori (umbrella dancers). The Shishimai at the Tenjin Matsuri Festival are accompanied by hundreds of Kasaodori. In time with the musical accompaniment, Kasaodori use small Japanese umbrellas that are deftly spun and twirled, by both hands in turn. Yotsutake (small bamboo sticks) are beaten in unison. Some people believe that such dances involve postures related to purification rites, while others feel that Osaka Shishimai and Kasaodori are adaptations of the Ise-Daikagura Festival Lion Dance. Considering this, it is no wonder that these performances contain elements of purification rites. Both Shishimai and Kasaodori were originally part of Mikoshi parades, but they are now performed independently on the eve of festivals. They are also performed independently when there are no Mikoshi activities.

The symbol of festivals - Mikoshi

Finally, Mikoshi are portable shrines that symbolize festivals. They are used throughout Japan, being one of the most popular images that people associate with festivals. That being said, however, the wildness and amusing nature of the Mikoshi of Osaka's summer festivals display a strong sense of regional uniqueness. Generally speaking, Mikoshi are shouldered with participants calling out "Wasshoi" as a cadence rhythm. However, the Mikoshi at the Tenjin Matsuri Festival are carried with a cadence of "Yo-i, Yo-i, Yoi, Sorya," while at the Hiranogo Summer Festival at Kumatajinja Shrine, a cadence of "Yoi, Yoi, Yoi, Yoi, Yoi-asa!" is employed. The undulating and irregular movement of the Mikoshi allows for the attached bells and ornaments to ring out, with all of these elements contributing to the purpose of purification. Wild Mikoshi parades (called Abare Mikoshi) are sometimes so frenetic that ornaments attached to the Mikoshi are broken off.

Since Mikoshi are a form of religious act that differs from other festival elements, at the conclusion of festivals there are solemn ceremonies that allow for the spirits of deities to be once again returned to their shrine from their Mikoshi. Such ceremonies are often solemn, offering somewhat of a juxtaposition vis-à-vis the frenetic nature of festivals.
枕太鼓海老江 野田えびす夏祭枕太鼓

The biggest highlight is returning to the shrine

The aforementioned matters are some of the highlights of Osaka's summer festivals; however, the biggest highlight of many festivals is the returning of festivals to their home shrines. Although it depends on festival location, normally closing ceremonies are held in the early evening and into the night. Danjiri are spun around while the rear axles are lifted off the ground, this being accompanied by the frenetic dancing of girls. Taiko drum stands are spun upon a dais within the grounds of a shrine, while Shishimai and Kasaodori are solemnly dedicated to the violent Shishi (lion) who invades the forecourts and halls of a shrine. The finale of many festivals is the wild, undulating Mikoshi that are paraded within the precincts of the shrine, with the overall festive atmosphere heightening to a climax.

Takeshi Shimazaki
Takeshi Shimazaki is a director of the Sunday University (a non-profit organization). He became interested in festivals as a component of local cultures during his university years. While pursuing research on the revitalization of communities, he commenced his own research of festivals. He is a recognized authority on the festivals of Osaka, publishing a number of essays in research newsletters, including one entitled, "How to Enjoy the Tenjin Matsuri Festival."