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

Today (Tuesday, July 9) Tsukuba`s MOST DISTINCTIVE (and aromatic !) Summer Festival – Ichinoya Shrine`s Garlic Festival ! 一の矢神社のニンニク祭り

Selling garlic amulets at the Ichinoya Yasaka Shrine in Tamatori Tsukuba

By Avi Landau


Japanese festivals which take place in the spring or autumn are usually agriculture related. The festivals of the summer months, however, those which take place after the rice planting has been completed and the rainy season has given way to intense heat and humidity, were originally conceived of and implemented in the hope of preventing disease and epidemics- especially those festivals which are called GION (祇園) or TENNO- (天王) Festivals.

I have explained in previous articles how the CHINOWA KUGURI (straw ring) ceremonies traditionally held in late June were established throughout the realm by the Japanese Court at Nara (in the 8th century) in order to help protect the populace from the health hazards of summer. In these ceremonies, to this day, anyone who wishes to can pass through a large ring made of straw or reeds which is believed to provide this protection. I have also explained that the origin of this custom can be found in the story of how the mischievous God Susanoo no Mikoto advised the poor, though generous, Somin Shorai to fashion such a ring and wear it round his waist in order to be protected from an imminent epidemic.

July is the season of the Gion and Tenno Festivals (祇園祭) which now take place all over Japan and at MANY locations in Ibaraki. The above-mentioned deity Susanoo no Mikoto plays a major role. These epidemic-preventing festivals are mostly held at shrines which are now called Yasaka-Jinja- though they were all formerly called Gion-Sha (until 1868, when the Meiji government decided to separate Buddhist elements from what they deemed to be Shinto shrines). The God enshrined at these shrines is — you guessed it — the Sun Goddess Amaterasu’s brother Susanoo no Mikoto, the deity most closely connected with disease and its prevention. In Japan he is a manifestation of the ox-headed Buddhist deity Gozu-Tenno (牛頭天王, Gavagriva, in Sanskrit), who was the guardian deity of the Gion-Shoja (祇園精舎), the Jeta Grove Monastery built for the Buddha himself in India.

These Gion Matsuris first began in Kyoto in the year 869 in order to stop an epidemic. Evidently, the court and the populace believed that the rituals were effective because the festival has been going on, with a few exceptions, for every year since.

The popularity of this festival and the belief in Gion, or Gozu Tenno (the Buddhist manifestation of Susanoo no Mikoto), as protector from disease, spread first to Hakata (Fukuoka) and eventually throughout the archipelago. It seems as if almost every town in Ibaraki has a Gion or Tenno Festival organized by parishioners of the numerous Yasaka Shrines (八坂神社) found in the prefecture. Many of them are well worth checking out.


The Garlic Festival (NINIKU MATSURI)

On Tuesday the 9th (today!),is the Ichinoya Shrine, near Tsukuba University, will hold its Tenno-Sai Festival, which is nicknamed the Garlic Festival because of its promotion of the FRAGRANT ROSE as a protector from disease and misfortune. Until about 30 years ago this was a huge event in the Tsukuba area and all schools were closed. It was not uncommon for Ibarakians to take off from work on the festival day, the 6th day of the 6th month on the lunar calendar. The main attractions were the stalls set up to sell special garlic amulets to be hung outside the entrances of homes. It used to be said that no Tenno (Gion) Festival could be held in Ibaraki, before the Ichinoya Tenno.

Garlic Festival (Niniku Matsuri) at Tsukuba`s Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja 2009

Garlic Festival (Niniku Matsuri) at Tsukuba`s Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja

Now the Garlic Festival is a mere shadow of what it used to be, but the garlic stalls are still there, as well as some other types of stalls that one rarely finds anymore in Japan: medicine sellers hawking dried vipers and turtles along with other traditional elixirs.

The festival provides one of the few remaining chances to observe the remnants of this area`s traditional markets.

Festival`s featuring garlic in such a prominent are also apparently VERY rare. In fact, I can only find the existence of ONE other such event in all of Japan- outside of Hirosaki City in Aomori Prefecture at a shrine called KI JINJA (鬼神社) or the ONIGAMI SAMA.

Preparing and selling galic talismans at the Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja 2009

Preparing and selling galic talismans at the Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja

Of course, there is also the shrine itself, protected by the largest zelkova (keyaki) trees in the prefecture, which is worthy of special note in this area. Said to have been founded in 689, Fujiwara Hidesato, the warrior sent by the court to quell the Masakado Uprising which had turned this part of Japan into a breakaway state, made an offering of his bow and arrows.The shrine was also given generous support by the Oda Clan which ruled this area for centuries.

Other Gion Festival this weekend

If you hear fireworks early in the morning, it probably means that a Gion festival will be taking place on that day somewhere near you. There will be several such festivals held in various Tsukuba neighborhoods this weekend If you hear the fireworks in the morning, go check out the nearest Yasaka Jinja Shrine. They will probably be holding a festival on tht day

If you want to check out or join in on a Gion Festival, I would especially recommend those held in Ryugasaki (with acrobatics!), Shimodate (taking the portable shrines into the river), Toride, Mitsukaido or Makabe.

It goes without saying that if you can make it you should go to Kyoto  for the “Mother-of-All Gion Matsuri”, with its bizarre, tapestry-laden, disease-sucking floats called Hoko (鉾).

For MUCH more information about Gion Festivals in Tsukuba, Ibaraki and beyond, have a look at A. Takahashi’s amazingly comprehensive website.

Also on July 30 this year you can experience the ancient rite of CHINOWA KUGURI at the Hie Shrine in the Tanaka neighborhood of Tsukuba city. I have written about this in detail at


Have a healthy summer!

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