Wade was hunting for things to do while we were in Osaka and found an ad for a laughing festival at Hiraoka shrine while looking up things online. I highly recommend that everyone make a habit of this when traveling. And don’t just look at the travel information sites. Look within the local papers, facebook pages, on the subways, town websites. Use google translate. Though google translate is not the best for conversation, it is incredibly helpful if you use it for events and websites. The translation is rough but you can usually decipher what, when and where. This is one the best ways to meet and interact with locals, do something cultural and get off the beaten path without much effort.
The laughing festival is an annual event that has been taking place at Hiraoka shrine for 100 years! The thought is that a good belly laugh cleanses the mind and body and it is a perfect way to relieve stress for the new year. Basically, people gather at the shrine, the priest lead the crowd into a fit of laughter and at the end they hold a laughing contest. Can you believe this?! How awesome. After reading the description we knew this was the “must do” on our list for the trip.
Hiraoka Shrine is located on the very outskirts of the city. There is a train station close by (conveniently named Hiraoka Station) so we planned for it to take a half hour. Well that was super wrong, and we didn’t figure out until we were walking to the train station itself; that getting there was going to take over an hour. We did the normal couple thing. “Ash, lets just take a cab.” “But babe, I don’t know. Its pretty far.” “C’mon, you want to go, lets just take a cab.” “Yea, but.. I don’t know. maybe we should just try the train”. (Is this a normal couple thing? Maybe it is just us.) We obviously got a cab. And Oh my goodness, it was a very expensive cab ride!
After guiding our cab driver to Hiraoka because, even he didn’t know where it was, they were actually still setting up the stage and shrine (So I’m really happy we paid for that cab ride… :/ ). On the plus side this gave us ample time to wander the shrine grounds and talk to the locals. Many of the locals came up to ask for pictures, wondering how we heard about the event and begged us to sign up for the laughing contest. In hindsight we totally should have but at the time we really had no idea what was actually going to happen. If ever you are here during this time you should totally do it though.
Hiraoka shrine itself is pretty standard but the grounds are really beautiful. It is located on the edge of a mountain and has little stream running through it. It is also situated next to some beautiful hiking trails in the Hiraoka park but I’ll get to that next. Overall a very relaxing environment.
On our way back from exploring we heard a chorus of “HA Ha HAA’s” and started to jog down the hill. The priest on the stage started the laughter in a few deliberate laughs and the crowd followed. Soon the laughs became a little more genuine and contagious. Scattered throughout the crowd were women dressed in white. I nicknamed them the laugh boosters. Think of them as cheerleaders. They walked around encouraging laughter from people to keep things going and did a great job. The whole ceremony lasted about 20 minutes and ended with the priests climbing the stairs back to Hiraoka shrine. As the patrons dispersed, some climbed the stairs to follow the priest, others went to grab a warm bowl of ramen to wait for the contest to start.
Seriously, I really wish we participated in this contest, I think Wade and I could have taken some of these contestants! Three contestants get on the stage and each begin laughing. Some were dressed up, others brought props, either way the point was to laugh and make others laugh. They each had several minutes to do their best and at the end the people voted based on cheers and applause. The whole thing was nuts! The Japanese are normally quite reserved among strangers and in public. It was wonderful seeing them in this way. Wade and I had such a terrific time laughing with these people and if you have watched any Japanese televisions you know their humor would fall into the “WTF” category. There was a clown, a women dressed as a football player and a couple who made origami lips and laughed through them; just silly fun really.
Being a part of the crowd to this event will easily be one of my favorite memories from Japan. I completely agree with their thoughts on laughter and I’m making it a point this year to deeply laugh more. Wade and I both felt lighter and more content when we caught the train ride back to the city. You didn’t think we were going to pay for that cab ride again did you?
Now on to the hiking portion of the day.
I’m nosey. Like really nosey. I am known to let my eyes do the leading and my body just follows. Then Wade follows me because someone needs to be on the lookout for things like curbs, on coming traffic, wild pack of wolves. So while exploring the shrine I came across a trail in the woods. We had some time to kill till the laughing started so off we went on another “Ashley see’s, Ashley goes” adventure. While in Kyoto I found a stunning trail in the mountains off the side of Fushimi Inari Shrine but traveling alone on an unmarked trail didn’t seem wise. My father will be happy to know that I turned around after about a mile or so on that trail. Since I wasn’t alone but rather with my strong brave husband we trekked up this completely totally marked trail. 🙂
There were a few signs on the trail and, from where we started, three different directions and destinations you could go to. We decided to aim for the one that said it would take 25 minutes. When we reached the top, we were greeted with a beautiful view of Osaka and the mountains in the distance. We climbed a little further to find a small Shinto shrine,枚岡神社神津嶽本宮. I was surprised by view and how many older hikers we saw. There were a few ladies climbing that put me to shame with there quick sturdy steps. Some looked in it for the long haul of the day and we saw a few trails leading off from where we started. If time wasn’t an issue then I would have loved to continue further to see what else was out there and where they were headed.
On our way down we tried a different path. This is where we really saw some rare Osaka beauty. Osaka isn’t known to be very scenic. I wouldn’t call it a very pretty or interesting city either. The buildings are all square, concrete and lacking any ornate details. The trails we discovered in Hiraoka Park were quite the opposite; they mazed through the small mountains and were full of surprises. We came across a river, that lead to a bridge that led to a waterfall and then to a stunning shrine. Everything was rust, red and yellow and fit perfectly with the remaining autumn leaves on the ground that Japan is famous for. I saw a select few cherry blossoms and plum trees completely bare and preparing for spring. Little peaks of those with fresh spring green leaves would be lovely in April. It was only 10 am and I was already having the best day of our trip. Between this, and the laughing festival that followed, I couldn’t think of anything better to see in Osaka.
Hiraoka Park is defiantly worth a look when visiting the Osaka city. I always enjoy seeing a little outside any city we travel to and this was no exception. Just take the train.
The map below stars the beginning of the trail we climbed, though there are other entrances. You can see the shrine symbol below and the train station towards the south west.