Traditional Osaka Festivals—Connecting People and Strengthening the Local Community
From ancient times, festivals, matsuri in Japanese, have possessed the power to connect the people with the gods, people with people, and people within the local community. While there is a diverse range of festivals—from ritualistic festivals that welcome the deities to those that originated in civic movements—all have been supported by the people, carrying on traditional culture and bolstering the local community. Here we will introduce three unique festivals that are the pride of Osaka.
The Tenjin Festival is ranked as one of the top three matsuri in Japan. It is said to have originated in the mid-Heian period in 951, two years after the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine was built, when the sacred hokonagashi shinji ritual was first held. Hokonagashi shinji is a Shinto ritual in which a sacred spear is floated down from the riverbank in front of the shrine, and the place where it washes ashore is designated as an otabisho (place of pilgrimage) in welcoming the divine spirit. Various events are held from late June to late July, but the festival’s key highlights are the eve of the festival, on July 24, known as yoimiyasai, and, on the next day, the rikutogyo land procession of 3,000 people in magnificent costumes parading to the boat landing and the funatogyo boat procession on the Okawa River. The festival culminates in a firework display to celebrate the welcoming of the divine spirits, with some 100 boats drifting down the Okawa River accompanied by the sight of some 5,000 rounds sent up. The festival is fondly dubbed “Tenjin-san,” and is one of the area’s three major summer festivals, along with the Aizen Festival and the Sumiyoshi Festival.
●Shoryoe at Shitenno-ji Temple
The ritual dance of shoryoe bugaku daihoyo is performed annually on April 22, the anniversary of the death of Prince Shotoku, at Shitenno-ji Temple, which is said to have been built by Prince Shotoku in the 6th century. Performed on the stone stage in front of the Rokuji-do Hall, this Pure Land Buddhist bugaku dance is dedicated to the spirit of Prince Shotoku. Designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, it is a modern-day continuation of the form of dance and music of the dynastic period over a millennium ago. As the year 2022 marked the 1,400th anniversary of the death of Prince Shotoku, the festival was held on an even larger scale than usual. The ceremony lasted around eight hours, during which a large taiko drum, approximately 2.4 meters in diameter and 6 meters high, was struck, and the soriko dance was performed on a stone stage decorated with four giant paper balls representing red spider lilies, with the soriko dancers wearing masks made of paper and silk with human faces painted on them.
The Nakanoshima Festival is one of the most prominent people’s festivals in Japan. Since 1973, it has been held annually on May 3-5 in the Nakanoshima Park area in Kita-ku, Osaka. The festival’s origins can be traced back to the Nakanoshima Eastern District Redevelopment Plan announced by Osaka City in 1971, which called for the demolition of historic buildings such as the Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library, dating back to 1904, and the Osaka City Hall and Central Public Hall, completed in the Taisho era (1912-26). In their stead were to be constructed, on 3-meter-high artificial ground, a six-story hall, a five-story legislative building and a 25-story city hall. In opposition, the Nakanoshima Festival was organized in the following two years with the aim of preserving the Nakanoshima Park area.
Each year, an organizing committee is formed of individuals and various associations, and the local residents pool their resources to plan, prepare and run the festival on the days of the event, making it a festival in which everyone can participate.
Festivals also contribute to the strengthening of local pride and the bonding and revitalization of the community. The Umeda Yukata Festival, held this year for the first time in three years, also contributes to building relationships with the neighborhood and bolstering the local community. The festival is organized by the Umeda Area Management Alliance. We spoke with two individuals from Grand Front Osaka TMO, which acts as the organizing entity for the Umeda Yukata Festival 2022, about the festival’s appeal.
“The Umeda Area Management Alliance is an area management organization working for the sustainable development of the Umeda area. It was initially launched in November 2009 by four companies—West Japan Railway Company, Hankyu Corporation, Hanshin Electric Railway Co., Ltd., and Grand Front Osaka TMO—and was further expanded in April 2009 with the addition of Osaka Metro Co., Ltd.,” explains Keiichiro Jona of Grand Front Osaka TMO.
“We’re active in initiatives to further invigorate Umeda. In 2010 we launched the Umeda Snowman Festival as a local winter event, followed a year later by events to make Umeda livelier in summer. One event that has continued since 2011 is the Umeda Uchimizu Daisakusen, in which participants carry out the ancient Japanese custom of sprinkling cooling water on the ground (uchimizu) in different locations. In addition, the Yukata de Bon Odori, a bon odori dance held atop a yagura (a traditional Japanese dance float) in Umekita Plaza, is a popular event that was launched in 2012, bringing local residents and visitors together,” he continues, describing the origins of the Umeda Yukata Festival.
Tomoaki Tanase adds that the Umeda Yukata Festival has helped to connect local residents and visitors to Umekita and has revitalized the area.
“Visitors to and people working in Grand Front Osaka don’t usually have the chance to do things together with the neighborhood residents,” says Tanase. “In this sense, the bon odori dance has provided a great opportunity for communication. Even those who don’t know how to dance at all can learn from the members of the local women’s group, and by dancing together, a new form of communication is born. Also, since there are universities and vocational schools in the Umeda area and many international students, wearing a yukata is a great opportunity for them to experience Japanese culture. Unfortunately, the festival was canceled for the second year in a row due to the spread of COVID-19, but by 2019, a total of 170,000 people had visited the Umeda Yukata Festival. The Umeda Yukata Festival has become widely recognized as a summer tradition in the Umekita area.”
This year, the Umeda Yukata Festival was held for the first time in three years, featuring new activities. On July 30 and 31, Peta-Peta Yukata Kibun and Hyper Engawa @ Umeda Yukata Festival were held for the first time.
“Peta-Peta Yukata Kibun was an event where you could create your own personalized tenugui (Japanese-style hand towels) by imprinting various stamps on yukata-patterned tenugui. A total of six different stamps were prepared, and each of the six venues had its own exclusive stamp. The tenugui was created in collaboration with Nakani, a local company specializing in the traditional Osaka-born chusen hand-dyeing method. The stamps were designed based on pictures drawn by children from local kindergartens on the theme of Japanese culture and the Umeda district. The event was an initiative to connect the local community.”
Meanwhile, Hyper Engawa was a talk session in which various people involved in community-based activities, such as community development, art, and business, were invited to talk in a relaxed atmosphere, much like a casual conversation on an engawa (open-air porch). “Although usually held in open spaces in cities such as Nakatsu, this event was held in conjunction with the Umeda Yukata Matsuri. This time, we held talk sessions of various genres in open spaces by people involved in the Umeda area under the themes of Japanese culture, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and community development,” explains Jona. As he describes it, the festival is not simply a festival, but a series of attractive events that allow people to be involved in shaping a new style of community development.
In the summer of 2024, the advance opening of a new green-filled urban area called the Umekita 2nd Project will unfold right next to Grand Front Osaka. Tanase is hopeful that the Umeda Yukata Festival will develop further through collaboration with the Umekita 2nd Project.
“We are still exploring how we can work together with the Umekita 2nd Project, but at present, the first thing you see when you look west from the large staircase in Umekita Plaza is the Umeda Sky Building with its kuchu teien (hanging garden) observatory. That will be completely transformed into a view of a park full of greenery, and the field will more than double in size. I’ve heard that there will be plenty of open space, so I’m optimistic that we can create an even more exciting festival by working together.”
The Umeda Yukata Festival, which adds color to Osaka’s summer, will undoubtedly serve as a significant force in the city’s new community development, connecting the local area with its visitors.
Photography: KOICHI HIGASHIYA Text: AKIKO WAKIMOTO