I was looking forward to cycling over the weekend, with good weather in the forecast. Pored through Google Maps before setting my sights on Tsurumiryokuchi Park 花博記念公園 鶴見緑地, more than an hour's ride on bicycle from home. It is also known as Flower Expo Memorial Park, or Expo '90 Commemorative Park. Not to be confused with the Expo '70 Commemorative Park 万博記念公園, this was the site of the The International Garden and Greenery Exposition in1990.
I had only been there once last year, and remembered seeing a vermilion-white temple in the vicinity. Usually large temples and shrines hold events during the cherry blossom season, so I looked it up and indeed Kongo-ji金剛寺 (On Google Maps search 念法眞教総本山金剛寺, as there are multiple temples with the same name) was having a 花祭り on April 8. The first thought that came across my mind was Why? Sakura season was nearly over, save for last vestige of late blooming varieties. Perhaps the festival had been held on the same date over the years, even though cherry trees had blossomed one week ahead of usual this year.
Upon entering Kongo-ji, I was struck by the number of temple staff or volunteers that were milling about in various duties. I had intended to strike a conversation to know more about the festival, but having arrived at the temple at 3 pm, there was only an hour left before the end of the day's festivities. I quickly headed off to the field where most of the events were ongoing.
The view was breathtaking and the size of the grounds was beyond my expectation. 平安神宮 Heian Jingu and 平等院 Byodo-in of Kyoto came to mind - charaterized by the red and white style of the former attributed to Chinese influence, and the garden pond of the latter. There were many windmill displays on the field that were fluttering in the wind while various groups took turns to entertain the visitors with music ad dance performance.
Hana Matsuri 花祭り
After having my fill of photos, I looked up 花祭り on the phone and realized that it is the birthday of the Buddha. It is said that the Buddha was born in a flower garden in Nepal 2500 years ago, hence the abundance of flower decorations in temples to mark this special day.
One may wonder why I had been clueless about this since I have been visiting many shrines and temples. Firstly, I profess that my knowledge of religious practices in Buddhism is limited, and that I am an atheist. Secondly, back in my home country and other Asian countries, the birthday of the Gautama Buddha is known as Vesak Day. The date varies every year and some countries adhere to a different date, but generally it is in May. Japan had adopted the Gregorian calendar after the Meiji government was established, hence it is celebrated on April 8 every year, while in China and Korea, Vesak Day is observed on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month.
The principal term for the festival other than 花祭り is Kanbutsue 灌仏会. Legend has it that 9 dragons appeared at the Buddha's birth and sweet dew rained down from the heavens, hence the practice of pouring sweet tea 甘茶 made from dried and boiled hydrangea leaves, over the statue of the Buddha is to replicate the momentous event.
The altar adorned with flowers（hanamido 花御堂）represents the where the Buddha was born, while the statue has the form of the baby Buddha pointing simultaneously heavenward and earthward. It was said that the Buddha took 7 steps after birth, pointed upward and downward, and said tenjou tenge yui ga doku son 天上天下唯我独尊.
This phrase should not be taken literally, as by reading it in both Chinese and Japanese will mean In this universe only I am supreme. This phrase is often used in Chinese martial arts movies whenever an evil sect leader proclaims his superiority and dominance over all others. While no doubt an almighty being, it is unthinkable that the Buddha would make such a flashy statement.
天上天下 means Heaven and Earth, and this is the only part of the phrase that can be taken literally. 天下 is often mispronounced here as tenka てんか as in the ramen chain 天下一品. It should be read as tengeてんげ, while reading it as tenga てんが as in the Osaka district 天下茶屋 is also acceptable.
唯我 is commonly misunderstood as only I, but here 我 should mean we, or everyone. In another phrase attributed to the Buddha 三界皆苦 吾当安此, the character 吾 means I, hence 我 should take on a different meaning. The confusion is due to the fact that in both Chinese and Japanese, both are interchangeable in referring to oneself. 唯我 should mean only us (humans)
As for 独尊, I believe there are different interpretations to it and that impacts on the entire meaning of the phrase. One interpretation that I have read is that we are born into this world as human beings, therefore we can find fufillment in pursuing the ultimate goal. I shall not digress any further here since I am no expert in Buddhism.
Within the main building there is an exhibition hall that holds various Buddhist artefacts, however I missed the opening hours. I will highly recommend Kongo-ji as one of the top spots in Osaka to visit if you wish to observe how the Buddha's birthday is being celebrated at a Japanese temple. It may be less accessible compared to Shitennoji Temple, but the grounds are no less smaller or less impressive. In addition, you can make a visit to the nearby Tsurumiryokuchi Park, which makes a pleasant stroll with its seasonal flowers.