Summer festivities begin in Osaka with the Aizen Festival 愛染まつり, which is held annually from June 30 to July 2. Along with Sumiyoshi Festival and Tenjin Festival, it is regarded as the top 3 festivals in Osaka.
Let me stop you right here if you are thinking of AIzen Sosuke. No this is not an otaku festival honoring the villain in the Bleach manga series. This festival is held at 愛染堂勝鬘院 Aizen-do Shoman-in . The patron god of this temple is 愛染明王, which is pronounced as Aizen Myō'ō in Japanese.One familiar with Buddhism will know of him as one of the 5 Wisdom Kings. Personally, I have only been to the temple during the festival, and I think Shintennoji Temple and Sumiyoshi-taisha will suffice for any foreign visitor staying in Osaka for a few nights.
The main highlight of the 3 day festival is the parade on Day 1. The procession begins at Q's Mall, proceeds to Tennoji Station and the underground mall, finallly hitting the road at Tennoji Park exit and then proceeding to the temple. If you are the otaku type who frequents cosplay events, you might want to go right to the start point. (Do check the schedule of events online, as timings may vary each year) You might be surprised at the sheer number of old-taku. They are guys past their 50's and very often their balding heads will get into your shots.
Also there will be a photo opportunity at the underground mall as the entire group pose for pictures and rally themselves before heading up to surface level. Otherwise, you should just wait along the road that is just outside Tennoji station near the entrance of Tennoji Park, also known as Ten-shiba.
The festival is said to have originated when geisha wore yukata and visited the temple on a palanquin. Of course in present day geisha are so far and few, moreover this is Osaka not Kyoto. Usually 12 girls are selected to be 愛染娘 Aizen musume. They will be dressed in yukata and serve as PR ambassadors of the festival. They will also be tasked to man the booth at the temple during the 3 days to sell amulets and of course oblige to pose for photos. If you are thinking all these girls are from a local beauty pageant , based on the above photo of a Aizen musume, then you will be disappointed. Usually a temple will put up information on upcoming activities and make their selection from hopeful candidates. Even a large temple only employs a handful of full time 巫女 shrine maidens. Additional help is certainly needed during major festivals.
The girls dressed in green belong to the 愛染女組 Aizen women's group. They have to wear 半被 happi and look happy. (Can't resist making the lame pun) Their main task is to carry the palanquin during the parade and at the temple they will sing and dance.
This is their mantra throughout the parade, which might be stuck in your head for quite awhile. Ho-e-ka-go refers to 宝恵駕籠 the palanquin. 別嬪 beppin refers to them the beauties, and 商売繁盛 shobai hanjo is wishing prosperity to businesses.
The temple is a straightforward 15 minutes walk from Tennoji Park, but the procession should take about twice the duration. Sometimes the palanquins will be hoisted up in the air (with the assistance of male helpers) and twirled around, while the Aizen musume in the palanquin will have to suppress any motion sickness any keep on smiling and waving to the crowd.
Upon reaching the temple, the entire group will gather in front of the pagoda for pictures and also there will be a ritual whereby each Aizen musume will take turns to be on the palanquin and once again be hoisted up while the crowd cheers them on.
After being shaken vigorously while seated on the palanquins, the Aizen musume girls take up position at their booth where you can purchase omikuji. There is even an English version of the fortune telling strips to cater to foreign tourists. Amulets and omikuji are still being sold at the regular booth, but of course most people will not pass up the opportunity to go up close to the Aizen musume girls and take selfies together.
You might notice that she's dressed in a yukata that is different from the others. I did not attend any of the festivities on Day 3, but I suppose one of the Aizen Musume girls will win the popular vote and be crowned queen. As the reigning queen from the previous year, she will also have to take part in PR activities for this year and also hand over the tiara ceremoniously to the next queen.
The 愛染女組 members swapped their green happi for party clothes and took centre stage in the evening. They started off with self introductions and then appealed to the crowd to vote for them in the ongoing contest. Much to the delight of the crowd, they performed a few current and retro Jpop songs.
Other groups performed in the evening, while the two girl groups take a deserved rest. This senior troupe had the crowd marvelling at their skills. Of course they didn't get it right all the time, but nonetheless the crowd applauded their efforts good-naturedly.
Every year there should be different groups peforming music, dance or traditional arts, and also there's the typical market bazaar lining the street outside the temple, selling a range of food and drinks in the evening.
For me taking photographs at the parade was enjoyable as the crowd was far from overwhelming like what you see at the Gion Festival. I can't really recommend visiting Aizen-do on any other regular day though, as it is indeed a small temple unlike Shintennoji or Sumiyoshi-taisha. You will be disappointed if you are looking forward to a range of buildings, statues or artifacts. However, this is a festival that you certainly should not miss if you happen to be in Osaka on June 30 to July 2.