Monday, August 16, 2010

My Japanese summer vacation with Mom: Osaka Tenjin Festival!

Sunday July 22nd, Mom and I went to the Tenjin festival in Osaka, one of the three largest, loudest, sweatiest festivals in Japan! First we went to J-house church where we had a combined Japanese/English service. Mom was impressed to see people from all over the world worshiping together; it was really touching. The doctrine was sound and the people welcoming; everything a church should be. They shared lunch with us and Mom got to know a little bit about Japanese missions. Afterwards, we headed for the festival. How strange, that after the worship service we should see a number of men going around blessing the shops in traditional Japanese form, shouting and clapping. This was followed by a parade, carrying small portable shrines to the big Tenman shrine dedicated to Tenman Tenjin, who used to be just an ordinary poet back in the Hein period (794 to 1185), but was later deified as the patron god of art and learning. Nobody believes in that anymore, but the festival and all its customs have a history over 1,000 years old. It`s celebrated throughout Japan just like the Ebisu matsuri and a lot of others, but Osaka has the biggest shrine and therefore the biggest festival. Mom and I watched young Japanese men and women carry giant floats on their shoulders, jumping and shouting and dancing with umbrellas as they paraded down the covered shopping street. No cars allowed; too narrow even without the parade. It was impressive, but very hot and crowded!

Here you can see the people jumping up and down with the portable shrine:

That`s actually not the most impressive we saw; this is at the end of the parade so everyone is hot and tired. (It was about 98 degrees Fahrenheit outside, or 36.5 degrees Celsius.) You should have seen them leaping at the beginning! I almost thought the shrine would fall off.

And here`s the dragon dance:

In a full-fledged dragon dance, one guy plays the feet and the other the head, but these were just small dragons. There were also little kids doing the dragon dance. Not as impressive, but really cute!

Followed by the beautiful umbrella dancers:

I don`t know what they`re shouting, exactly. Sometimes it sounds like “Sore” which is basically “Yeah!” “Come on!” “Let`s do it!” etc. No special meaning. Then there`s the Engrish chant “Fighto fighto!” which I don`t think requires a translation. I swear, knowing Spanish really helps communicate with Japanese. Just add an “o” or an “a” on the end of any English word and about one quarter of the time they`ll know what you`re saying. Ha, ha.

Of course there were the usual street vendors, so I bought Mom a fried anko (red bean paste) and cream fish flour tortilla thing. It`s basically like a soft waffle, shaped like a fish, stuffed with sweets. She didn`t care for the anko, so I got her a custard one too. She liked that better.

Mom started getting really hungry (for something other than huge helpings of carbohydrate), so we stopped by a Subway along the street. She was really surprised how much she craved American food already (MEAT)! Giant bowls of rice just don`t satisfy most Americans, I guess. “Is that why you`ve lost so much weight?” she asked me. “Fish and rice? How can you stand it?”

“I like fish,” I replied simply. “But not the rice so much, or rather, so much of the rice.”

We stayed in the nice air-conditioned restaurant until about 4:00, then walked to the end of the street. Mom was surprised how long it went, covered and with only foot traffic and shops all along. Must have been at least two miles. At the end we found a lady with a cute little dog in her purse. Here he is:

The parade came to a culmination with the dragons all running and dancing. I guess they were trying to break through some sort of barrier but failing:

After that, we had about an hour to wait before the boat parade, so we went to a McDonalds for a strawberry shake. (Mom was still having American food withdrawal baaaad.) We had tried a few other restaurants first at my suggestion, but they were all filled with smoke. One thing that really shocked Mom was how many people smoke in Japan. They`re so health conscious, wearing long gloves over their arms so they don`t get skin cancer (or maybe they just like being porcelain white), but they smoke and drink so much. (Some of the first phrases Mom learned in Japanese from the Pimsleur CDs I gave her were how to order or decline beer. She thought she would never need to use them. Ha, ha.) The only place you can get away from it is in Western-style restaurants. In the McDonalds bathroom we were planning on putting on our yukatas, which we had brought with us. But the bathroom was so small, and while I knew how to put on mine, I had trouble with Mom`s. A little old Japanese woman saw us, muttered something under her breath, left, and five minutes later came back. It was like she left and then thought to herself, Well, I can`t let those stupid gaijin walk out of the bathroom looking utterly stupid. I guess I`ll go back and help them. I didn`t even ask her, she just came back in and started stripping us, redoing it the right way, and jabbering the whole time. I couldn`t understand most of what she said because her voice was all crackly like someone stepping on a bag of potato chips. But she was nice, and I can`t believe she took all that time in the cramped little bathroom to do us both up. And then she was gone. Just like that.

To be honest, I had sort of been banking on something like that happening. Mom kept asking how I would put on our yukatas, and I didn`t want to tell her that I hadn`t a clue how to do it myself, at least not on her. I`ve had enough experiences in Japan with random strangers helping me that I knew it would all just work out. That`s sort of how I live my life in Japan. If I want to do something but am totally clueless how, I either ask a passerby first, or just start doing it with the hope that some nice Japanese person will come along and correct me. It never fails, but I don`t think it would work in any other country in the world. What would I do if I ever had to live in a place like New York City? I guess I`d move to Little Tokyo.

Anyway, so there we were, all dressed up in our yukattas. By now a huge crowd was swelling toward the river, eager to see the world`s largest boat procession. Some idiot tried to drive his car through the middle of the throng, honking his head off. Gosh, how stupid and selfish can you be? I guess I`m so used to seeing Japanese people bend over backwards to fit in and be nice to everyone that it just strikes me as ridiculously rude when they don`t, but such a sight would be common in America or Africa or India or anywhere else I`ve been. There`s always some hancho who thinks he`s better than everyone else, no matter where you go.

So we had a pretty good viewing spot for the boat procession, but stupid me wanted to find a seat. We couldn`t see when we sat in the grass, and by the time we got back up to the bridge, the officers wouldn`t let us get our spots back. So we ended up missing the whole procession…darn. Then the fireworks started. Every seven minutes or so, they shot off thirty seconds worth of fireworks. It wasn`t particularly comfortable standing there in the heat amongst the huge crowd, probably well over 5,000 people, and I was liking our prospects for catching the last train to Kyoto less and less. So Mom agreed that we should leave early, about 8:15.

And boy am I glad we did! The river of people moving toward the station was nearly overwhelming, before the fireworks were even halfway over! Mom had to stop by the bathroom. I was relieved when there wasn`t a line, but I shouldn`t have been. Just as I was coming out, I heard an alarm blare. A few second later I saw Mom sheepishly come out of the handicapped stall, looking like she wanted to disappear. A security guard came but we hurried away.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Um…I couldn`t figure out how to flush the toilet. So I, uh…pressed all the buttons and then…”

“You pressed the alarm.” I couldn`t help but laugh. “You know, I did the same thing at an ATM once.”

Mom wasn`t laughing. “Um, Laura Jane?”


“I forgot my ticket in there.”

Oh. So we forced our way back through the crowd, like salmon swimming upstream, and got the ticket.

“Well, at least we`re even on the toilet mishaps now,” I told her.

The trains were so full we couldn`t even get on the first one. For the first time in my life I saw the pushers, who shoved and prodded and packed us in like fish in a crate. Fortunately most folks got off long before Kyoto. Otherwise it would have been a REALLY long ride.

Why did we go to Kyoto? Because we were staying with my friend Kayoko at her mother`s house. Originally she was going to come with us to the festival, but said she wasn`t feeling well. So I was a little surprised when she said she still felt good enough to put us up for the night. We were greeted with the usual Japanese hospitality, curry rice for dinner, hot showers and an air-conditioned room with beds. Kayoko and her mother had to work the next morning, but Mom and I enjoyed touring around Kyoto. I`ll write about that next time!

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