One of the nice things about living in Japan is that there is always some festival or holiday to look forward to. Unlike America where once the holiday season ends with New Year's or, ho-hum, the feast of the Epiphany on January sixth, there is a long lull in festive events, in Japan something fun is always just around the corner. Once Christmas has passed, the trees come down and up go the kadomatsu and other New Year's decorations. After the five or six-day drinking, eating, and TV-viewing binge known as O-Shôgatsu, or the Japanese New Year, comes Tôka Ebisu, a festival honoring Ebisu, the patron deity of businesses and fisheries. At around the same time, the Coming-of-Age Day celebration celebrating the entry into adulthood of the nation's twenty-year olds, is held. There is the bean-throwing exorcism known as Setsu-bun in early February, as well as a number of local festivals held in shrines and temples in the meantime.
On Sunday, I went to Fukuoka's main Ebisu shrine which is located just outside of Higashi Park. While I sometimes miss the New Year's celebrations do to travel, I always manage to get back in time to attend the Tôka Ebisu festival.
Like most other festivals held throughout the year in Japan, you'll find the usual demisé food stalls selling o-konomiyaki (below), jumbo yakitori, and so on. What makes Tôka Ebisu different, however, is the number of stalls selling good luck items featuring the seven lucky gods (Shichi Fukujin) of which Ebisu is one, talismansand other trinkets to ward off bad luck, and so on.
The festival also attracts a much different class of people. Whereas you can see many young men and women at the harvest festival Hôjoya (also known as Hôjoe), the people attending Tôka Ebisu tend to be older and "tarnished", making it an interesting place to people watch. I never fail to find the middled aged mamas of "snacks", rough-looking men who look as if Ebisu hasn't been very generous to them, and others desperate for an auspicious start to the new business year.
This year, there seemed to be far more people at the festival than usual. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was that after 2011 everyone is hoping for a bit of luck.
Corn on the cob.
Sweet roasted chestnuts.
If you look closely at the apex of the crowd you can see an upside down red fish, a sea bream. This is a symbol of Ebisu who is often depicted carrying one. In Japanese the sea bream is called tai which rhymes with medetai, meaning “happy”, “auspicious”, or “successful”. Real sea bream are often displayed at a celebratory gatherings, such as New Years, the end of sumô tournaments, engagement ceremonies, and so on.
Just beyond the red sea bream is a procession of the Hakata Geiki, a troupe of geisha working in Fukuoka City. I’ll write about them in a later post in the coming months. Incidentally, the photo on the cover of my second novel, A Woman’s Nails, was taken at this event several years ago.
Chocolate covered bananas. I loved these as a kid but don’t have the courage to try one now.
The geisha making their way to the shrine. This procession is held every year at the height of the Tôka Ebisu festival and worth seeing. This year we just happened to be there when it was taking place.
Another feature of Tôka Ebisu is the drawing that is held at the shrine. On either side of the shinden there are booths selling tickets.
The first time I attended the festival was over ten years ago and didn’t know what to expect. So, when I pulled out one of the lots from a hexegonal box and the Shintô priest shouted, “Ôatari!” (Jackpot!), my mind filled with delicious possibilities: a new car? A trip to Hawaii? Cash? I had never ever won so much as a cakewalk or bingo game before. Needless to say, I was quite excited.
As another priest pounded out several beats on a drum and shouted “Ôatari,” the first priest pulled out a huge red fan from a pile of trinkets and talismans behind him and passed it to me. The fan had 商売繁盛 (shôbai hanjô, “prosperity in business”) written on it in large white characters. Prosperous was the last thing I felt.
That didn’t stop me, however, from going back year after year and trying my luck. In the past, the tickets were only ¥1,500. Today, they go for ¥2,000 each—so much for the deflationary pressure we are told has been pushing prices lower and lower—and where I once bought two or three of the tickets, I now only buy one.
Over the years I have “won” two of those large red shôbai hanjô fans, a massive wooden paddle as big as a cricket bat that has 一斗二升五合 written on it, a plate featuring Ebisu-sama, a wooden piggy bank, a calendar, and a small Ebisu doll.
A dutiful follower of this cult of Ebisu, I went on the tenth of January last year. The weather was awful—freezing cold and rainy—and I had been forced to wait under a canopy that leaked like a sieve for a good hour and a half until my wife and son showed up.
When they finally did, I was in a foul mood. My pant legs and shoes soaking wet, the cold was beginning to seep into my bones.
“Let’s just get the damn thing and head on home, okay?” I grumbled to my wife. “It’s freezing!”
We hurried into the shrine, which thanks to the lousy weather was not as crowded as it usually can be during the festival. There was only a handful of people in line for the drawing.
Well, no sooner had we handed over our ¥2000 at the reception desk than the man at the counter said, “Congratulations, you’re our twenty-five-thousandth visitor.” Or something like that. He had us fill out a form and then asked us to follow him to the place where the lots were drawn. After handing the form to the priest with the box containing the lots, I was told to pull one of the sticks out. It didn’t matter which. I did so and gave it to the priest who stood up and, turning on a microphone, said he had a big announcement to make.
“We have a major prize for our twenty-five-thousandth visitor today!” Another priest started banging away at a drum. The other priests in the shinden stopped what they were doing, stood up, and started clapping in unison. After a number of Banzais, the priest handed over a massive and cumbersome bamboo rake to me. It was adorned with ceramic depictions of the gods Ebisu and Daikoku, a red sea bream, a bale of rice, and other auspicious items.
Let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more thrilled had I won a trip to Hawaii.
I don’t know if it is thanks to Ebisu-sama, my son whose arrival in my life signaled the beginning of things finally going my way, or plain dumb luck, but last year ended up being the very best year ever in so many ways.
When you’ve already won the jackpot, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to continue dropping quarters into the slot machine, and yet that is essentially what we did by returning to the Ebisu festival this year and trying our hand at the drawing again.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” my wife said.
“I know, I know,” I replied. “But still, it would be nice to get one of those boats with the seven lucky gods in it. I’ve always wanted one for the collection.”
Sure enough, Ebisu wasn’t as generous to us this year: we got a simple little wooden abacus. I suppose the message the gods are trying to tell us is that we should be more careful about how we spend money. Duly noted, Ebisu-sama!
 Ask your Japanese friends to try reading 一斗二升五合and most of them will be stumped. It is a riddle of sorts employing 斗, 升, 合 all of which are traditional Japanese measures of volume.
一斗 (itto, about 18 liters) is equal to ten 升 (shô, about 1.8 liters). 一斗, then, can be said to equal 五升の倍 (go shô no bai), which means “five shô doubled”. 五升の倍 (go shô no bai) is synonymous with 御商売 (go shôbai) which means “one’s business or trade”. Got that?
二升 (nishô). 升 can also be read masu. 二升 here is read “masu masu” which sounds like 益々 (masu masu), meaning “more and more”, “steadily”, and so on.
五合 (go gô, 5 x 0.18 liters, or 0.9 liters) is one half of a shô or 半升 (hanjô) which sounds the same as 繁盛 (hanjô, prosperity). So, putting it all together 一斗二升五合 can be read “Go-shôbai masu masu hanjô!” (御商売益々繁盛), meaning something to the effect that your business or trade will enjoy increasing prosperity.