After a brief respite from the surge of visitors during hatsumoude 初詣, as Japanese make their customary visit during the first few days of the new year, Imamiya Ebisu Shrine transforms from a regular neighbourhood shrine to a bustling focal point for 3 days starting from Jan 9th.
This festival is known across Japan as 十日戎 Toka Ebisu, with the 10th being the most significant day of the 3 day festivities. Ebisu恵比寿, the god of fishing and commerce , is known as Ebessan えべっさん in Kansai dialect. Ebessan can be used broadly to mean the god Ebisu, Imamiya Ebisu Shrine, and the festival. 十日戎 is celebrated in other parts of Japan, but the one here in the heart of Osaka stands out above the rest, drawing not just the local crowds but visitors far and wide.
Ebisu is revered as one of the seven lucky gods 七福神, and the only one whose origin is entirely Japanese, hence one can say that the Japanese share a closer affinity to Ebessan than to the other gods. While the descriptions of their roles seem overlapping, both Ebisu and Daikokuten 大黒天 have long been worshipped by merchants. Only Ebisu takes centre stage in this festival, which may be attributed to the fact that he is the patron god of fishermen, and that fishing has been the livelihood of many Japanese across centuries.
During my stay in Japan, I have experienced the festival twice and now I shall attempt to highlight some of the attractions of this festival.
1. Fuku musume
Every year, 50 Fuku musume 福娘, or lucky daughters, are selected after a rigorous selection process from over 3000 applicants. They represent very much the face of the festival, working tirelessly in various roles during the festivities, and having to maintain their grace and composure at all times, which can sometimes be stretched by overzealous photgraphers. There is a token representation by some international students, and such an inclusive move to involve non Japanese in festivals can be seen increasingly across Japan.
One of their main roles at the shrine is attending to the crowds eager to adorn their fuku zasa 福笹 with various ornaments and talismans. Fuku zasa is the lucky bamboo branch which is dispensed freely at the shrine. While bamboo has many practical uses in Japan, here it is symbolic of prosperity and purity.
There is a wide selection of charms, however do note that they are more expensive than similar ones sold on regular days. As seen here, most of them cost 1500yen, even for an ema 絵馬 that one usually writes their wishes on. Each charm has its own symbolism but generally represents prosperity, with gold coins, sea bream and rice bales being the most sought after.
While queuing and waiting for the fuku musume to decorate your fuku zasa, you can appreciate their beauty and grace at close proximity. For more photos, try searching #福娘 on Instagram.
2. Miko Kagura
Miko 巫女, or shrine maidens, are usually seen at the counter selling amulets and charms, but here during Ebessan, they take on a more active role in performing 巫女神楽, which is derived from mikagura 御神楽, the sacred dances performed in Imperial courts. If one considers decorating the fuku zasa with charms as enhancing the prosperity aspect of bamboo, then miko kagura enhances the purity aspect. The shrine maiden channels the god through dancing and singing, blessing and purifying the bamboo branches. It may be worthwhile to continue observing the next dance after the current one has ended, as the ritual is not a single routine but includes variations in terms of number of performers and also the props used.
3 Hoekago Parade
If you have only one day to spare in Osaka then you certainly cannot miss the 10th, as it features one major event that encompasses the Dotonbori and Namba area where many tourists stay and visit - 宝恵駕行列 the Hoekago Parade. The scale of this parade is many times bigger than the one on the opening day of any festival. It starts at around 9.30 am in the morning at Dotonbori River, where the Ebisu bridge is located, and ends at Imamiya Ebisu shrine at about 12 pm. The parade seeks to replicate the festive atmosphere back in the days of the Edo Period as worshippers crossed the bridge to reach the shrine. Celebrities, geisha and fuku musume are carried around in colourful palanquins and accompanied by contingents representing various groups and organizations.
There is also a stage set up on Ebisu bridge, where you can watch bunraku and theatrical show.
4. Street bazaar
Streets in the vicinity of the shrine are closed to traffic during the festivities, to facilitate the setup of a huge array of yatai stalls, game stalls and those selling Ebisu displays and charms. If you just intend to grab a bite while browsing through the stalls, the price of a serving of okonomiyaki or karaage is pretty much standard compared to what is usually found at any festive bazaar. However, having a meal while seated in tented areas, some of which have heating, will rack up a bill way above expectations, as vendors do not openly display their prices, which seems to include a seat charge.
Stalls selling Ebisu displays and charms are clustered together close to both entrances to the temple. Generally, the larger ones are more expensive, while regular sized ones are also more costly than zodiac displays ushering in the new year.
Ebessan marks the first major festival of the year, and is a great opportunity to see the cultural vibrancy of Osaka. The shrine is easily accessible by subway stations Daikokucho and Ebisucho, and Imamiyaebisu on the Nankai line. If you are too overwhelmed by the crowds at Ebessan, perhaps make your way to the nearby Okuninushi shrine 大国主神社.