The matsuri that took place over 4 days at the end of July/beginning of August in Tsukishima is not one of the better known in town. For one thing Tsukishima is not that popular with outsiders, despite its proximity to Tsukiji and Ginza. Also, the Sumiyoshi Shrine matsuri only takes place once every three years.
The first time I came across the merry, mikoshi-carrying men and women in my neighbourhood was a few months after my arrival. At that point I had only been to a a small local festival in Osaka, nothing quite so entertaining. This time there were over 5 portable shrines, countless participants of all ages and most importantly: a huge water fight! The spectators were throwing water at the participants, sometimes even to their friends. Anything that could hold water was turned into a weapon during this 4-day event. Even construction workers joined in by spraying the crowds with their hoses.
Imagine my excitement when I came home one day about a month ago to find a poster advertising the event posted on our announcement board.
The big day finally arrived and in the morning of August 1st I took to the streets of our neighbourhood armed with my camera in its waterproof case.
The crowds were already pretty excited so before long I was being pulled by someone towards a mikoshi. "Give me your stuff, it'll get wet!" said a middle-aged man and I obliged. I joined the group of men carrying one of the mikoshi and pretty soon every child within 50 meters from us was coming to throw some water to the foreign girl laughing her face off!
Carrying a mikoshi proved much more challenging than I expected and so after a while I decided to go back to being a photographer. I thanked the men who told me I was welcome to join them again and returned to the pavement with the rest of the spectators. "That was fun!!" I said to my partner who had been looking for me for a while. Looking at my wet clothes and messed up hair, he figured out where I had been right away. "Oh man, I'm Japanese and I've never carried a mikoshi! How did you get them to let you in?" he said in an endearingly whiny voice.
During a break we sat down at one of Tsukishima's monjayaki restaurants and this is when I started thinking about the water fight. Before that day I had thought it was a way of celebrating (and praying for) abundance, a good harvest and so on, by using a universal symbol of fertility. But now, in the scorching heat, I realized the explanation was much simpler: if not for the buckets of water, the participants would have collapsed in the first few minutes; going on like this for days would have been impossible. The water was to keep them cool.
In the evening we headed for the Sumiyoshi Shrine, around which the evening festivities had already started. A group of musicians playing traditional music. Children, kakigori in hand, trying to capture bouncy balls with nets made of paper. Adults in identical yukata robes sitting on low tables and drinking sake. Some already passed out, sleeping in their seats. For these people it was the best matsuri ever, even though it didn't attract huge crowds like the Kanda Matsuri or extravagant floats like the Tenka Matsuri. It was the greatest matsuri because they made it so. And I felt the same because for a brief moment I was part of that too.