A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Watch or Join in on Your Neighborhood Festival This Month as The Gion Matsuri Season Kicks Off in Tsukuba at the Onozaki Yasaka Jinja Shrine (July 4 and 5, 2015)

A typical Gion Matsuri Festival- A portable shrine (Omikoshi) being carried and shaken to absorb all impurities in the village- bamboo poles have been set to mark the village boundary

These long white banners proclaim that a festival will be held at the Yasaka Shrine in Onozaki- July 6,2013)

These long white banners proclaim that a festival will be held at the Yasaka Shrine in Onozaki- July 4, 2015)- You probably heard the fireworks blasts set off to announce the event- in the morning and evening of the 4th (tomorrow will be more of the same.

This miniscule portable shrine (OMIKOSHI) will be carried and shaken by children through the old neighborhood of Onozaki, Tsukuba- on July 6th at 5PM.

This miniscule portable shrine (OMIKOSHI) will be carried and shaken by children through the old neighborhood of Onozaki, Tsukuba- on July 5th at 5PM.

By Avi Landau
According to A. Takahashi’s impressively comprehensive TRADITIONAL EVENTS IN AND AROUND TSUKUBA website, there are at DOZENS of Gion Matsuri Festivals taking place at Yasaka Shrines within the Tsukuba City limits alone this month , and many many more such Gion-Sai (祇園際)of which will take place in the surrounding area. Since no machine has yet been invented which would allow me to be at all the events at once, and since I never want to rush around getting quick and superficial looks at the different matsuri around town, I usually select one or two areas at which I spend a lot of time examining ( and enjoying) the festivities. Unfortunately two years ago, the great annual event held in Hojo, the old town near Mt Tsukuba (in which I used to live in a renovated old farmhouse!) was cancelled due to a devastating tornado. Before moving to Hojo, however, I used to stay close to my long time home in Konda ( which was rendered unliveable after the earthquake of 3/11), and would stroll down to observe the goings on from beginning to end, starting at the  local Yasaka Jinja (八坂神社).
Residents of the rustic old neighborhood of Onozaki, Tsukuba make their way towards the Yasaka Shrine for prayers (and sake drinking) on the evening of July 5th 2014

Residents of the rustic old neighborhood of Onozaki, Tsukuba make their way towards the Yasaka Shrine for prayers (and sake drinking)

I now live in Tsukuba`s Matsushiro area and this evening (July 4th 2015) and tomorrow I will go watch the proceedings at nearby Onozaki Yasaka Jinja (within easy walking distance of Ninomiya House). You too might have heard the series of firework blasts which signalled that today`s evemt is on.
 It happens to be that this year this will be the first Gion Festival in Tsukuba with most of the rest being held at the end of the month.

Bamboo and rope demarcate the sacred space through which the portable shrine will pass

Here is an account of Gion Festival in Konda from two years ago, which is quite representative of these festival in this region.
As I have explained in previous articles, Gion Festivals originated in Kyoto in the 9th century as a way of trying to rid the city of summertime epidemics by appealing to the Gods enshrined at the Yasaka Jinja, Gozu Tenno (actually a Buddhist deity) and his native Shinto counterpart Susanoo no Mikoto. These early events must have done the trick, with their music and strange floats, because the same rites have subquently been carried out almost every year for more than a millenium, and offspring Gion-type festivals have spread from the ancient capital to all corners of the archipelago.
From my house in Tsukuba, there are two Yasaka shrines within easy walking distance. One, in the neighborhood called Higashioka is located in a woods on the grounds of the Sakura City Office. The other is down the road in an old village (buraku) called Konda. The characters used to spell this name are 金 and 田, which are usually read kaneda and which literally mean golden rice fields. As I walked towards the shrine I thought these characters perfectly appropriate with the sprawling paddy fields a deep green, rustling in the wind, and the impressive and large (by any country’s standard) homes, surrounded by walls, with imposing gates through which could be spied well groomed Japanese gardens. The forested hills on which lie the ruins of the medieval forts of Hanamuro and Konda framed this picturesque scene.
For this weekend each home had put out a special festival lantern and older residents had set up chairs in front of their gates from which to watch festivities. Those participating were all dressed in their specially made Konda festival wear and everyone was in good cheer, with many obviously having had more than just one beer.
There was a portable stage set up on the back of a pick-up truck upon which the local musicians and dancers performed their Konda Hayashi, with flute gongs and dancers dressed in lion masks or comic masks. These performances are based on the Hayashi of the Ishioka Gion Festival.
I followed this musical pickup truck towards the shrine itself which was full of fresh offerings. Tents were set up on the precincts to dispense beer and I was quickly given a heaping
The portable Shrine (O-Mikoshi) was all ready to be paraded through the town and the locals insisted that I join them. Konda’s mikoshi is said to be more than 300 years old and it is NOT LIGHT. Shouldering portable shrines can often lead to a feeling of religious euphoria as the great effort required, the dealing with the pain and the heat, the rhythmic chanting and shouting can carry you into a trance-like state. We paused at several places, had some more beers and had plenty of good ole male bonding.
As the sun went down and the air got cooler the excitement built. The people lining the roads cheered, the music from the pick-up picked up, and our mikoshi carrying worked into a frenzy.
I took a pause and looked around at the amazing scene: smiling families dressed in traditional wear; the antique omikoshi; the masked dancers; the grand old houses.
I was really happy to be in Japan.
Check A. Takahashi’s website and try to get to a Gion Festival near you.
More on Tsukuba`s Niniku Matsuri here:

Kindergarten children having their own summer festival

The unique triangular float used in Hojo`s Gion Festival will be on display near the Yasaka Jinja (in Hojo) though the festival it self has been cancelled due to the recent killer tornado

The typical poles and banners which are set up in front of Yasaka Shrines in this area to announce the opening of Gion Matsuri Festivals ( Onozaki, Tsukuba). Tonight`s festival will begin at 6pm

For more on Yasaka Shrines in Tsukuba:

and the great Gion Festival in Shimodate (Chikusei City):