Every year on May 25th, hundreds of masked men stroll around Tsuruoka's streets holding a saké (Japanese rice wine) bottle in one hand, and a bottle of juice in the other for Tenjin Matsuri. They are called bakemono 化けもの (from bakeru 化ける: "to transform oneself" and mono もの: "person"), literally: "the disguised persons"), and shall not be mistaken with their Japanese homonym: bakemono 化け物, Japanese word for "monster". Tsuruoka's bakemono are in reality very nice characters that you have nothing to fear of (their only vice might be wanting you to get drunk).
But first of all, let's talk about the origins of the festival.
Tenjin Matsuri 天神祭り was originally born in Osaka in 951 and Osaka's festival is still considered today as one of the Three Main Festivals in Japan. This festival is held in every city that has a Tenmangû 天満宮 (a shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, the deity of scholars and intellect). Tenjin Matsuri in Tsuruoka was created in order to celebrate Sugawara no Michizane's memory (and also to coax him into stopping causing natural disasters). Sugawara no Michizane 菅原道真 (845-903) was a very well lettered politician at the service of Emperors Uda 宇多天皇 and Daigo 醍醐天皇. The people loved him for his beautiful poems and his intellectual excellence granted him to be promoted to one of the highest political ranks in Japan during Heian Period. But it also rekindled his rivals' jealousy towards him, who later decided to scheme a plan to have him exiled from the capital (Kyôto at the time). Even though Michizane was perfectly innocent, he got exiled for treachery. While it was strictly forbidden by the authorities to address an exile, the people couldn't resign themselves to let their beloved poet go without telling him goodbye.
In order to not get recognized by the authorities, Kyôto's people disguised themselves in gender-less clothes, wore big hay hats to hide their face, and hid their mouth in a plain piece of cloth. By doing so, they were able to show Michizane their love for him without fearing getting denounced to the police.
People also decided to make Michizane smile one last time by transforming that sad moment into a festive party, where saké flowed in abundance and laughs would resonate all around the city.
Later after his exile, Sugawara no Michizane died in poverty, completely miserable. After his death, a succession of natural disasters and epidemics happened in the region. People saw there a malediction cast by Michizane's vengeful soul. In order to appease his soul, people reunitied every year on May 25th to show their love for him and to ask for forgiveness.
Tsuruoka's Tenjin Matsuri recreates the legend of Sugawara no Michizane's exile from Kyôto, but every Tenjin Matsuri in Japan is different. Tsuruoka's Tenjin Matsuri is the only festival where saké is served for free by masked men. Children and people who can't drink alcohol are served fruit juice. Anybody can become a bakemono if wanted. Clothes-changing stations and free bakemono outfit rentals will be held at several places around Tsuruoka, including Tenmangû Shrine or in front of Kiyokawa souvenir shop. The saké and fruit juices are provided by the city.
All day long, dances and theater plays will be performed in front of Tenmangû shrine