Cleanliness is next to godliness in Japan
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 20, 2008
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS of Shinto, and therefore of the traditional Japanese way of life, is the emphasis on purity and cleanliness. That emphasis is immediately apparent when visiting any Japanese bath and observing how people conduct themselves. Participation in Shinto events requires the same purification; Shinto priests must bathe thoroughly before conducting any festivals in a practice called kessai.
Another Shinto rite is the misogi, or rite of ablution. The purpose of the rite is to remove physical and spiritual impurities. And that’s exactly what the people in the photo are doing. (I hope you didn’t think it was a wet bathing suit contest.)
This misogi is held at the Kanda Myojin, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo founded roughly 1,270 years ago. They’re taking a midwinter bath in a special tub outside the shrine as part of the Daikoku Festival.
This year’s festival was held on the 12th, and 29 people gathered to get pure by splashing cold water all over themselves. The men wore loincloths, and the women wore white robes. They used the traditional wooden tubs called oke to gather the water. (The tubs in modern bathhouses are plastic, but the oke is still preferred in many establishments and households.)
One of the participants, a 20-year-old college student, reported that she was cold during the preparatory exercises—they did exercises first?—but didn’t feel anything when she was in the water bathing. She was probably too numb by that point!
Participating in this festival seems as if it would be a classic trade-off. On the one hand, getting in the water and splashing around with the ladies would surely be a lot of fun. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.
On the other hand, it involves stripping down to a loincloth and taking a cold bath outdoors in the middle of January.
Ah, but let’s not forget it’s a misogi! It’s a religious experience that will drive away evil spirits and purify the bather.
That tips the balance for me!