Photo/IllutrationMembers of Dazaifu Manyonokai dressed in colorful period costumes recite poems at a re-enactment of the Baika-no-en in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on May 1. (Masaru Komiyaji)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

DAZAIFU, Fukuoka Prefecture--A festive atmosphere prevailed in the "birthplace" of the new era name on May 1, when the Reiwa Era started.

As early as 6:30 a.m., people began assembling at a designated historic site for the ancient Dazaifu government office in Fukuoka Prefecture to spell out a huge Reiwa using their bodies.

It took about 1,500 people lined up along white lines drawn on the ground almost an hour to complete the two kanji characters, about 60 meters long by 40 meters wide.

“Thank you, Heisei. Congratulations, Reiwa,” the participants said in harmony.

The city office started accepting entries on its website on April 26 to participate in the event. So many people wanted to join that the number of 1,000 expected entries was reached at around noon on the day.

“There aren’t very many chances to participate in an event like this,” said Naoko Sato, 71, a resident of Onojo in the prefecture, who helped form the kanji.

The Reiwa Era, which kicked off with Emperor Naruhito's enthronement, is derived from poetic remarks in the “Manyoshu” (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), believed to have been uttered by Otomo no Tabito (665-731), a Nara Period court noble and a highly respected scholar.

Tabito hosted a party known as a “Baika-no-en” at his official residence in Dazaifu on the southern island of Kyushu, where he and his guests recited their own poems, while admiring ume, Japanese apricot flowers, blooming in the garden.

Tabito used the characters “rei” and “wa” in his opening remarks at the gathering.

It is believed that Tabito’s residence was near the Sakamoto Hachimangu shrine, close to the Dazaifu government office.

Since the announcement of the new era name, the once-quiet shrine has been inundated with as many as 5,000 visitors per day.

Starting at 9 a.m. on the first day of Reiwa, the shrine held a festival to celebrate the new emperor’s enthronement and the era change.

Celebratory banners were hung on the shrine grounds, and visitors jostled each other to get a stamp called a “goshuin.”

The shrine parishioners association said more than 4,000 stamps were given out before 10 a.m. on the day.

Fukuoka resident Jun Kajiwara, 39, arrived at the shrine at 2:30 a.m., lining up to get a stamp that he wanted to give as a gift to his grandmother, who was born in the Taisho Era (1912-1926).

Kajiwara said he could feel the excitement in the air at the beginning of the new era.

“I wanted to sign the visitor’s book on the memorable day of Reiwa,” said Naoki Obata, 44, from Hirokawa in the prefecture, who stood in line from 3 a.m.

Dazaifu Manyonokai, a citizen’s group that has been re-enacting Tabito’s apricot blossom viewing party for more than 20 years, staged a Baika-no-en on the day as well.

About 50 members donned costumes from the period of the Manyoshu and paraded around the Dazaifu government office site. Other members dressed as government officials from the time recited poems and poetic remarks that the Reiwa name is derived from.

“The Baika-no-en is a Dazaifu treasure. We want to convey that message to many people including those who love the Manyoshu,” said Seiko Matsui, 80, a representative of the group.

(This article was written by Toru Tokuyama, Mayuri Ito and Amane Shimazaki.)