Young men work together to paddle a river boat at the Tenjin Matsuri

Tenjin Matsuri: Tradition Meets Osaka Flair

Did you know that two of Japan’s big three festivals happen in July? The first is Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, which we’ve already discussed. The second is one near and dear to our hearts, the Osaka Tenjin Matsuri. This Osaka festival is a perfect combination of traditional Japan and Osaka’s fun, unique flair. It’s also one of the largest boat festivals in the world!

Read on to learn all about this fun festival, its customs and its interesting history.

What is Tenjin Matsuri?

Fireworks go off as people watch from boats at the Tenjin Matsuri
This festival is all the best parts of Osaka culture, from traditional customs and performances to fun, over-the-top entertainment and fireworks. Image via Instagram (@moma.odekake)

Tenjin Matsuri is a huge festival that is pretty grand in scale that takes place from the end of June to July 25th. However, the 24th and 25th are considered the main days of the festival. This festival celebrates the kami (god/spirit) of Tenjin, a deity that actually existed in history as Sugawara no Michizane. He was given was given the status of a god of learning after his passing.

The origins of this festival go back well over 1000 years, dating back to 951 CE and has been celebrated at Osaka’s Tenmangu Shrine ever since.

The festival is most famous for its events that happen on the 25th, with a grand procession on the streets around the shrine and an amazing boat procession that happens on the nearby Okawa River. The boat procession in particular is famous for its amazing performances and the great fireworks show that happens along the river.

This festival is huge and takes a lot of work to put together, so groups called ‘ko’ or ‘kosha’ help the shrine with the festival. There are 24 of these groups, all of which worship and serve Tenmangu Shrine. The official Tenjin Matsuri site even states that these groups are really the only way to participate directly in the festival beyond just being a spectator.

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Tenjin Matsuri Customs

A Tenjin Festival boat carries festival participants as two men perform on the front of it
While the most famous is probably the boat procession, there are other events that lead up to this. Image via elmimmo's Flickr

Like we mentioned, the festival takes place for about a month, with the last two days being the biggest ones for spectators. The 25th is when the festivities are in full swing, and the 24th is mainly focused on events that prepare for the 25th. For a full picture of the festival, let’s do a quick rundown of the festivals days.

Late June

First, in late June, the chief priest of the Tenmangu Shrine chooses people to fulfill roles within the Tenjin Matsuri that involve special garb. The roles are: Child Prodigy, Monkey Hero, Attendant, and Cow-Puller. Those chosen for the roles have to follow certain rules until the festival is over.

These rules include hanging a sacred rope and scroll at the entrance to their homes, pray every day, enshrine a sacred scroll in their homes, avoid fighting, avoid attending funerals, and avoid other unclean things. They must also take baths regularly to keep the body clean and avoid eating four-legged animals, onions and garlic.

July 7 (AKA Tanabata)

This shrine also groups in Tanabata Festival into the greater Tenjin Festival. This version of the July 7th holiday has a twist where people pass through a straw circle while making their Tanabata wish.

July 23

 

July 23rd also has a couple of events, including an “Imperial Feather Carriage Procession”, where a mikoshi is carried around the area. This is done in order to pray for a safe and prosperous Tenjin Matsuri.

There is also the Tenjin Festival Women’s Mikoshi on this day. This event sees 80 women between the ages of 15 and 30 parade two 200kg mikoshi 4.5 km. This event is lovingly called the Gal Mikoshi by locals.

July 24

The 24th is actually quite important to the festival as well, with there being plenty of events. The day centers mainly around the Hokonagashi Shinji (Spear Floating). The day starts early with an event at the Tenmangu Shrine to announce the festival (on the 25th). Here, a prayer is done for the divine will of Tenjin and the gods in the Spear Floating.

This sacred spear is then marched through the town by priests in period attire from the shrine to the nearby river. Then, the Hoko-nagashi ritual begins to purify the people. Traditional Shinto prayer dances are done to music, and after the dances, the participants use a doll to wipe their bodies.

The priest in charge of the doll will then take the doll and wrap it in straw, and board a boat with the Child Prodigy who is holding the sacred spear. The boat then heads to the middle of the river where both the spear and doll are sent down the river. Later in the day, boats are taken to part of the river to retrieve the sacred spear and take it back to the shrine.

The day also includes an offering of ceremonial knives and chopsticks to the gods, performances of traditional lion dances on the shrine grounds, drum performances and riverside Noh performances. There is even a lion dance parade with more umbrella dancing and bamboo dancing.

July 25th

July 25th is the biggest day that starts with an opening ceremony and a prayer at the shrine for the prevention of epidemics. After that, the grandest parts of the festival begin with the land procession, followed by the boat procession, and fireworks to close out the event for spectators. A final ritual is done to return Tenjin to the shrine and officially end the festival.

Land Procession

A man rides on a large gold portable shrine as he guides the shrine carriers
Much like other festivals, Tenjin Matsuri requires plenty of teamwork from the planning to the execution of the events themselves. Image via Instagram (@nonnon_0727)

We can’t talk about Tenjin Matsuri without talking about the amazing land and boat processions that this festival are famous for. The land procession starts promptly at 3:30 p.m. at Tenmangu Shrine and ends at the boarding point of Okawa River. This procession is huge with over 3,000 participants, all in different traditional Japanese garb.

The main point of this procession is the transportation of the Gohoren, a portable shrine that the deity rides, to the boat procession. However, this festival also sees plenty of people carrying mikoshi, jisha floats, lanterns, flags, spears, oxcarts and more.

It is also a place to see some of Japan’s traditional arts. Dancing is a big one with lion dances, yosakoi, parasol dances, and kagura music being performed in the parade. You can also see traditional stagecraft, like bunraku here.

The land procession only ends when all of the groups have boarded their boats for the next part of the festival.

Boat Procession

Several boats float down the Okawa River as the sun sets on the Tenjin Matsuri
The boat procession is really a sight to behold and something that just has to be experienced to capture the true magic of it. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The boat procession is one of the most unique and exciting parts of the festival and features over 100 boats sailing over the Okawa River. However, the main purpose of this procession involves the Gohoren, which is placed on a boat after the land procession. This boat is where the priest prays to the deity for the protection of the deity’s followers and the citizens of Osaka.

Meanwhile, some of the boats feature music and performances of traditional Japanese arts, such as noh, kabuki and bunraku. You can also find other lively boats from the different sponsors who help to make the festival happen. Other smaller boats also sell Japanese festival foods as they weave in between the larger boats.

Kosha members enjoying food and drink on of the Tenjin Festival boats
These boat spots are highly coveted, but boats like this one are often reserved for those who support or contribute directly to the festival. Image via Instagram (@nobuo.miyoshi)

This part of the festival is plenty lively and very exciting, However, all of the  boats quiet down and welcome the deity anytime the Gohoren boat passes them.

Along the river, there are also fireworks at certain points along the river. Add bonfires and lanterns and you get a festival that is also known as the “Festival of Fire and Water”. It really is a beautiful festival that combines Japanese tradition with Osaka’s unique flair and spectacle.

This is by far the most popular part of the festival, attracting tons of people. The paid seats are often swept up well in advance, so most locals go early to try and find a good spot to sit and view the boats and fireworks.

Origins of Tenjin Matsuri

To talk about Tenjin Matsuri, we first have to talk about the history and legend of Tenjin.

About Tenjin

A traditional painting from 1880 showing the god Tenjin as a thunder god
This deity may now represent scholarship, but his origins as a vengeful spirit is one of the reasons this festival exists. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Like we mentioned, Tenjin was once a man named Sugawara no Michizane who lived from 845 to 903 CE. He was famous for having a brilliant mind and rose to prominence in government and politics at the time.

However, a member of the very powerful Fujiwara clan successfully plotted against Michizane, leading to him being exiled to the island of Kyushu. Unfortunately, he died as an exile in 903.

In 930, a heavy storm came to the capital and lightning actually struck the palace. This lightning and rain were vicious, killing many of the leading Fujiwara clan members while also burning and flooding their homes.

The Emperor determined that it must be the work of Michizane, so in order to appease him, several orders were made. He was given back his title, his exile order was burned and he was deified as Tenjin, a deity of the skies.

He is now a deity of academics, learning and intelligentsia (which we just learned means the use of intellect for mental work like politics, education, writing and journalism.) Plus, because of the lightning, Tenjin is also thought of as a god of thunder.

The Start of Tenjin Matsuri

A group of men work together to carry the golden portable shrine with a man directing on top
Tenmangu Shrine isn't just the start of the festival. It's also the place where this iconic festival got its start. Image via Wikimedia Commons

According to the official Tenjin Matsuri site, the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine was founded in 949, and two years later, the Hokonagashi ceremony was established. Again, this ceremony sees a sacred spear sent down the Okawa River from close to the shrine. When this spear washed ashore, they put a temporary shrine there, marking a place for Tenjin to rest.

The spirit travels to the river, boards a boat and travels down the river to this temporary shrine. This ceremony appeased Tenjin, preventing natural disaster and epidemics while granting protection for the area. This ritual is thought to be the origin for Tenjin Matsuri and is still held on the morning of the 24th.

When the Tenjin Matsuri actually started as we know it is unclear, but records have the name Tenjin Matsuri mentioned from at least 1499. Although the festival has continued since then, Hokonagashi was discontinued sometime early in the Edo period (1603-1868) but brought back in 1930.

And we're so glad that it was brought back as it's one of our favorite festivals in Japan! Then again, we're biased as Osaka residents and natives. Would you like to see this festival? Let us know with a comment!

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