Kansai Scene Magazine
 

 

Lion king

Yasaka Shrine Festival, Osaka

Whether it’s your first summer in the Land of the Rising Sun or your fourth decade, the intrigue and appeal of the summer matsuri never seems to wane. Beautiful Japanese women sporting the most fashionable of summer yukata, the smell of watagashi (cotton candy) wafting through the narrow, crowded streets, the hypnotic rhythm of the taiko drum, an endless caravan of yatai selling all things yaki — yep, it’s definitely that time of year again. Time to dust off the yukata or jimbei, gather a few close companions, and head out for a night of cultural revelry. There’s no short-age of options, but finding one special enough to warrant an out-of-the-way journey can be taxing. Luckily, due to the plethora of online and published information, finding a spot to satisfy your festival hunger is a cinch. Despite the vast options, I still manage to stumble upon shrines that pop up out of nowhere. Yasaka Shrine is definitely one of those places.

Wait a minute, did you just say Yasaka Shrine, the crown jewel of Maruyama park at the end of Shijo dori? Well, yes and no. I did say Yasaka but what I failed to mention was that this is Yasaka shrine in Namba! Indeed, Yasaka shrines are dotted throughout the Kansai, but seem to have no affiliation to each other. In fact, the most famous Yasaka Shrine in Japan used to be called Gionsha, during a time when Shinto and Buddhism were combined. When the Meiji Restoration began, shrines and temples were officially separated, and many shrines changed their names to have a deeper Shinto meaning. Yasaka means “eight slopes”. Eight is a lucky number for Japanese people, as evidenced by the eight Shinto gods, the 88-temple walk of Shikoku, and the mountain peak Yatsu-ga-dake. Appropriately enough, this year’s Yasaka festival falls on the unluckiest of days, Friday the 13th of July.

The festival officially begins on the evening of the 12th with the Funatogyo ceremony along the Dotonbori river in the heart of Minami. The evenings of both the 13th and 14th see the festivities shift to the nearby shrine, where a number of unique customs are practiced inside the Shishiden.

The Shishiden is a 12m high building in the shape of a lion’s head, the largest of its kind in Japan. The mouth of the lion is a performance stage, and during the festival plays host to a number of different bon dances. How can anyone pass up a chance to see kimono clad ladies dancing traditionally in a giant lion head? That, combined with the tossing of a traditional Japanese sweet, make for an unforgettable experience. The dances start in the early evening, and build up to a climactic frenzy, when all of the performers join the stage and throw out pieces of semi-hard mochi to the eager audience. Hundreds and hundreds of rice cakes, tossed out of a giant lion head. Be warned: cover your head and don’t wear any clothing susceptible to mochi stains. While partaking in the celebrations, be sure to gaze up at the lion head, because it’s the only time of the year where the eyes are lit up. Eerie. Taiko drummers in an adjacent space add to the aura, and the chance to see small children decked out in kimonos should not go unmissed. In addition to the children, if the same street vendor is here this year, then you’ll have the chance to see kimono-clad teens brandishing glow-in-the-dark devil horns. Photo ops arise, so break out the camera and join in on an unforgettable cultural experience.

Text and photos: Wes Lang

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Ways & means

Yasaka shrine is located in the Motomachi neighborhood of Namba, between Daikokucho and Namba stations. From Takashimaya, walk south along Midosuji until it merges with Yotsubashisuji and becomes route 25. Cross Onami-dori and turn right past the Toyoko Inn. You’ll see the yatai shortly.