Tenjin Matsuri, literally translated to the Festival of the Gods, is ranked as one of the “Top Three” festivals in Japan, along with Gion Matsuri in Kyoto and Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo, and is the most famous festival in Osaka. The Tenjin Matsuri is known for the boat and land processionals, elaborate fireworks performance, and the boat bonfires along the Osaka Okawa River that create a hypnotic light display. Citizens of Osaka are known throughout Japan for being less reserved than residents of Tokyo or Kyoto, therefore, of the “Top Three” festivals in Japan, the Tenjin Matsuri offers the best chance to interact and chat with outgoing locals.
Held in the sweltering month of July, this 1000 year old festival is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, the Japanese deity of scholarship and learning. Festival participants claim the Tenjin Matsuri personifies what makes Osaka distinct from any other part of Japan; everything from the rhythmic hand clapping and food stalls, to the fire display on the Osaka Okawa River screams Osaka.
The Tenjin Matsuri falls on July 24th and 25th every year, regardless of the day of the week. The festival kicks off on the 24th, starting with prayers at the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine at 7:45am. The rest of the day is filled with a Taiko drumming performances, a long land processional in traditional garb, and a Danjiri dragon dancer, to signify the commencement of Tenjin Matsuri. However, most people consider the first day low key in comparison to the extravagance of the second day.
On the second day of the Tenjin Matsuri, pedestrians wear yukata (summer kimonos), and geta (wooden slippers) strolling, and often pushing, through the celebration. The day is filled with bunraku theater, puppets, kagura music and Osaka dance performances; however the highlight of the celebration is the land processional, boats, and fireworks display.
The land processional is led by red hatted drummers and citizens in 8th to 12th century imperial clothes. Near the end is a portable Tenmangu Shrine. The groups push through crowded streets, chanting and cheering to the gods. At sunset, the land procession moves to the Osaka Okawa River, creating one of the largest boat festivals in the world. Some boats hold giant lanterns, some are flat stages for noh and bunraku performances, some are thin rowboats that are propelled up and down the river by a group of young Japanese men, and some light enormous oil fires along the deck. This stunning fire display draws people from all over Japan to the Tenjin Matsuri.
The pinnacle of the Tenjin Matsuri is, of course, the hanabi (fireworks) display, an hour and a half performance with three thousand shots. This breathtaking display of fireworks, combined with the boats engulfed in flames, dances across the surface of the Osaka Okawa River, a nice treat for people on the shoreline. People from all over Osaka arrive early to reserve a prime hanabi (firework) viewing spot with a blue plastic tarp or picnic blanket; landowners sometimes “rent” out their land for firework viewing fanatics. By the time the boats are launched and fireworks begin, throngs of people line the water’s edge.
The Tenjin Matsuri is a uniquely Osaka style festival. Anyone can join in; it is a great chance to enjoy a hot summer day, wear a yukata and geta, and enjoy the celebration. It is impossible to find such a festival anywhere else in Japan; the boat display and hypnotic lights dancing across the river have no equal. The Tenjin Matsuri is by far the most famous festival in Osaka; you cannot call yourself a true Osaka citizen without taking part in the festivities.