Matsuri da! (103): The big chill
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 14, 2009
EVERYBODY KNOWS that cleanliness is next to godliness, and religions the world over incorporate ablutions for the sake of purification into their activities. Shinto in Japan is no exception; the term they use for this ritual purification is misogi.
A little bit of baptism never hurt anyone, especially if it’s done in a nice warm body of water in the middle of summer. But some folks take the idea of ritual purification very seriously indeed.
Take the Kanchu Misogi Festival now underway at the Samegawa Shinto shrine in Kikonai-cho, Hokkaido. The word kanchu means mid-winter, and mid-winter in Hokkaido, where they start wearing jackets at night in the second half of August, is a very cold place to be. The festival, which dates from 1831, is held in supplication for an abundant harvest and catch of fish. It starts at 7:20 p.m. sharp on the night of the 13th. At that time, four young men clad only in the briefest of white loincloths step onto a specially prepared stage on the shrine grounds. This year, the temperature in Kikonai-cho at 7:20 p.m. on the 13th was 1° C, or 33.8 ° F.
Wait for it—this is just the warm-up. Or should I say, “cold-up”.
One of them starts chanting Ei! Ei, picks up a bucket of ice water, and dumps its contents down the backs of his companions. And then he does it several more times, to make them purer still.
Dedication that extreme deserves an audience, and yes, they attract a crowd. This year, about 50 spectators showed up to watch, though there were no reports on how long they could bear to look at the spectacle before heading home to a hot bath. The group now involved in the ceremony consists of four men ranging in age from 18 to 21. I say “now involved”, because they’re going to stay holed up in the shrine until the 15th. They come out on stage and repeat the ceremony at intervals of a few hours each for the better part of two days.
Only males that age could be convinced it was a good idea to do something that…that…Heck, I’ll let you pick the adjective of your choice.
By the way, the reason the Kanchu Misogi ends on the 15th is because the festival then turns into the Kaichu Misogi. The word kaichu means “in the sea”. That’s right–these four young bravos are going to quit messing around with the girly-man buckets of water and go for the ultimate midwinter purification by jumping into the sea.
Now I ask you—isn’t that a lot of purification for four men to be going through on their own? They would have had to have done some really low-down and nasty stuff over the past year to require that much of a ritual cleansing, post-adolescent male craziness notwithstanding. Perhaps what they’re doing is a symbolic purification for everyone in Kikonai-cho, much like The Nazarene is said to have died for our sins on the cross.
I’m glad somebody wants to do it badly enough to step up and volunteer. If I were asked to do my part for the salvation of the neighborhood, I might choose to put up with a little defilement instead!
The four guys finally took the plunge before noon on the 15th, as you can see from this:
The air temperature at the time was -5.4° C, or about 22 ° F. The reports say they splashed each other for about five minutes, but they didn’t say how deep they went in.
If they went in up to their waists, all I can say is: You’re a better man than I.