26 April 2016

The Taishi Shotoe festival of lights

One of the things you always look for when you're travelling, is something that little bit unusual, something only the locals know about, something that isn't mentioned in every Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. I don't have anything against the big tourist destinations - they're usually popular for a reason, and of course if you're visiting somewhere for a short period of time, you want to tick the top destinations off your list. However, I'm not in Japan for a short holiday this time, but living here for an extended period, so seeking out experiences beyond the guidebook is something that I am lucky enough to have the time to do.

It was with this aim in mind that on Saturday night I found myself getting off at Kaminotaishi station, in an Osaka suburb. I had taken the train there in order to visit the Taishi Shotoe festival of lights. This is an annual festival where a number of local temples are illuminated by lanterns at night. I hadn't done a huge amount of research before travelling there, and had hoped that there would be people heading towards the festival, or some signage, pointing me in the right direction. I quickly realised this wasn't the case, as the stream of commuters walked off to their homes and I was left standing at the train station unsure which way to turn. It was still light, so I followed my gut instinct and walked directly away from the station, looking around for signs of festivity. After about 10 minutes of walking and not seeing anything, I asked a passing couple for help, in my poor Japanese, and they of course responded in perfect English that I was going the right direction, and would be able to see the temple from the road if I continued to walk straight ahead. What a relief!

At last I came upon Taishi Nagomi Park, where the festival was taking place. It was clearly a local affair and at first I felt very much like a stranger who had turned up uninvited to a village fete! However, that feeling quickly disappeared as I made my way into the throng of the festival. There was a market with hot food (including the biggest yakitori skewer I've ever eaten) and games to entertain the children. There was also a band stand in the park, where wadaiko drummers performed as the sun set.

The market gets busier as the day draws to a close

The wadaiko drumming performance begins in broad day light...

... and ends when the sun has set

Once the drumming performance was over and I had finally finished eating the biggest yakitori stick on the planet, it was time to explore the light displays. As soon as the sun went down, the festival came into its own as the many different coloured lanterns carefully arranged around the festival site burnt brightly in the dusk light. The lanterns were laid out in various patterns, from flowers to peacocks, both in the main square and around the neighbouring Eifukuji Temple and Saihoin Temple. Children wandered between the lanterns as if they were a maze, and others stood back and admired the displays from afar.

The lanterns come to life as the sun sets

The path of lights leads you to the temples

The lanterns were laid out in various patterns, such as flowers

Lights are arranged in the shape of the kanji for 'harmony'

Apparently there were over 10,000 lanterns used for the festival! The festival is dedicated to one of the articles issued by Prince Regent Shotoku (574 - 622), which states that 'harmony is to be valued'. The reason why this is celebrated here is because Eifukuji temple in Taishi is known as the site of the tomb of Prince Shotoku.

There are many matsuri (festivals) in Japan, some are local, others are nation-wide. It was a privilege to experience this local festival, which was no less impressive despite its relatively small scale. In fact, the small scale lent the festival an intimate and moving atmosphere. The other festival I have visited since arriving in Japan was the Sapporo Snow Festival, which although was vastly bigger in scale and impressive in many ways, didn't compare to the smaller taishi shotoe festival in terms of atmosphere.

It was awesome to experience these temples at night, surrounded by such beautiful light displays. The atmosphere was one of both joy and reverence. It was particularly interesting to visit temples that are used by local people, unlike the temples that attract thousands of tourists each year which, with their many signs telling you to take your shoes off and not to take photos, feel more like museums than active places of worship.

Inside the Eifukuji temple complex

Two-storey pagoda inside the Eifukuji temple complex

Saihoin temple

Sadly, as you can probably tell from the number of umbrellas in the photos, it was raining for most of the evening. However, there were lots of festival volunteers who did their best to re-light any lanterns that went out over the course of the evening, so it didn't impact on the enjoyment of the festival too much.

As summer approaches, I look forward to visiting many more Japanese matsuri! I visited the 9th Taishi Shotoe festival, which took place on 23 and 24 April 2016.

Have you ever been to a light festival? Have you discovered something or some place that isn't in the guidebooks?


  1. It's great when you find a hidden gem but I think I'll probably be guidebook bound for most of my trip. I'm glad you managed to find the place OK< it looks like a wonderful evening despite the rain.

    1. There's more than enough in the guidebooks for a short trip... even though I'm spending a month in the Kansai region, I doubt I will have covered even 30% of the stuff mentioned in the books! I think you could spend a fortnight in Kyoto alone for example... there's just so much to see!!