Japan from the inside out

Their name is mud–and they’re proud of it!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 25, 2007

THERE’S NO BETTER EXAMPLE anywhere of people making lemonade out of the lemon that life handed them than an annual event held on the tidal mudflats of the Ariake Sea by the small town of Kashima in Saga Prefecture.

The tide level differential at the Ariake Sea is six meters, one of the three highest differentials for any body of water in the world. (The other two are said to be in France and South Korea.) I live near the Ariake Sea and have seen the difference. When you stand at land’s end at high tide, you can watch the water lapping at your feet. When you return at low tide, you won’t see any water at all—just mudflats stretching to the horizon.

There’s a local story about these mudflats and World War II that sounds as if it might be an urban legend—or more properly, a rural legend. The old-timers like to cackle about the American planes that flew over the town during high tide to plan a bombing run. When they returned, the story goes, they dropped their bombs into the tidal flats and killed a lot of maritime wildlife, sparing the town. It’s a plausible story, until you realize there was probably nothing in Kashima worth bombing at the time. (And records indicate Saga Prefecture was not heavily bombed.)

What do you do if you’re a small rural town on the coast that no one ever visits, located next to a huge, constantly shifting expanse of mud? What you do is find a way to turn all that mud to your advantage, so the people of Kashima created the Gatalympics. That’s a bilingual portmanteau word created by combining the Japanese word gata, or tidal mudflats, with Olympics. The first Gatalympics were held on May 3, 1985, and I was there.

They’re not fooling when they say Olympics. The town invites university students studying in Japan to participate in Olympic-style events held in the mud instead of a track or swimming pool. Before the competition starts, they march onto the assembly grounds at the seashore in groups divided by nationality, accompanied by recordings of their respective national anthems.

Meanwhile, the competitions that the organizers have created for the mud in Kashima are a testament to the human imagination. The events include swimming, dancing, and cycling races. Yes, cycling races–a course of plywood is laid out on the surface of the mudflats and the participants compete to see how far they can ride a bicycle before falling over into the slop.

The photo on the left shows what they call The Women’s Battle Royale. We’d have called it King (or Queen) of the Hill where I grew up in the U.S., except there’s an anchored platform instead of a hill. The spectators love this—evidently, watching women wrestle in the mud is a popular attraction anywhere you go in the world.

They’ve also set up a crane over the mudflats and suspended a rope from it. The objective is to swing from the rope and see how far you can fly into the mud. The Tarzan yell is optional. Then there’s the four-team tug of war, with the chairman of the executive committee joining in. (Can you imagine the head of the IOC participating in the Olympics? Especially if he had to get dirty.)

Additional events include a race over an obstacle course and a parent-child triathalon. The Gatalympics conclude with the NTT Cup, which is a freestyle dash over the flats. The first event starts at 11:00 a.m. and it ends at 3:30 p.m. It pretty much has to—that’s when the tide starts coming back in.

The whole idea is to get filthy and laugh yourself silly. There’s nothing like competing in a pseudo athletic event and getting slathered from head to toe in stinking mud to create international camaraderie. The people of Kashima benefit because the national media cover the event every year, they get a piece of tourism revenue that ordinarily would go somewhere else, and everyone really does have a lot of fun. It’s hard to be shy or stand on ceremony talking to someone when both of you are covered in slime.

If you think you’re a good mudder and fancy your odds, it’s probably too late to go for the gold this year, because the Gatalympics are being held on Sunday the 27th. But you could always come and watch. There’s no telling who you’ll meet. In addition to the foreign students, English teachers, and locals, all sorts of people have stopped by. Researchers from the Fisheries and Fishing Community Research Center of the Korea Maritime Institute have visited in the past to observe. The Center was studying ways to promote local economies in South Korea by using tourism in fishing villages.

Before you know it, the South Koreans will be sending over a national team to compete every year. Perhaps Kashima can offer a prize called the Shochu Cup.


After next Sunday, however, life returns to normal in Kashima, and that means catching mutsugoro, or mudskippers. If you’ve never seen a mudskipper, take a look at those two darlings in the accompanying photo. They’d both fit in the palm of your hand. They’re called mudskippers because they skip over mudflats when they look for food, and probably when they look for mates, too. In fact, they can leave the water for longer periods of time than the average fish, as this site about the Singaporean variety explains.

All that mud is the mudskippers’ habitat. They dig holes in the mudflats and come out to frolic when the tide is out. Not only are they edible, some people think they’re a delicacy, so that means there’s money to be made by going out and catching them. I’ve watched fishermen, such as the one shown in the photo, do just that, and it’s not an easy way to make a living.

It might be more accurate to say these men are a combination of fisherman and hunter. They slide out with one knee bent on the board, skating all over the flats to catch as many as they can before the tide rolls in. They snatch the mudskippers with a tool that looks like a fishing pole and a line, but with a special hook at the end used to snare the creatures and flick them back toward the box.

That sounds like it should be a special category in the Gatalympics, but these men depend on it for their livelihoods.

Mud Festivals

The folks in Kyushu seem to have a special fondness for playing in the mud. We’ve already talked about the Mudslinging Festival held every March in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, in which the townspeople throw mud at a young man selected to be a priest for a day, after bucking him up with sake to withstand the onslaught.

If you’re the type that enjoys getting down and getting muddy, then Kyushu might just be the place to spend a week or two. The following Sunday after the Gatalympics, on June 3, the city of Hioki in Kagoshima Prefecture holds another mud extravaganza, called the Seppetobe Festival. Its origins are unclear, but it dates back more than 400 years to 1595.

Here’s what happens—the local men get dressed in white robes and meet at the local Hachiman Shinto shrine. The first order of business is to pass around an 18-liter jug of shochu mixed with hot water. Can you think of a better way to prepare for a religious ceremony in the mud? Witnesses say they can get carried away with themselves and wind up sloshing a lot of the grog on the ground, leaving the shrine grounds with a strong odor of liquor.

The priests then conduct a Shinto ceremony, while the men enter a nearby mud field, form a circle, and start jumping around, perhaps practicing for the main event. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the object of worship at the shrine (in which the divinity is thought to dwell) is carried over in a procession. Everyone then moves into a rice paddy, which has been specially filled with water for the occasion. The men bring with them 10-meter-high flagpoles, which are the symbol of their respective neighborhoods. The rice paddy is filled with water, the men are filled with shochu, and the flagpoles are heavy, which makes walking a tricky business.

A small group starts off the ceremony by forming a small circle and performing a dance and splashing water. Other men gradually enter the circle until their number reaches about 100. By this time, they are covered in mud, splashing, cavorting, ripped out of their minds, and praying for a bountiful harvest.

Seppetobe is local dialect for seiippai tobe, or fly (jump) as hard as you can. They’ve come up with some good justifications for this behavior, other than just having a goofy good time. All that stomping in the paddy kills harmful inspects (so they say), and also makes paddy cultivation easier. They do it as hard as they can to impress the divinity with their seriousness of intent, hoping that will bring them blessings in the form of a good harvest.

And here you thought being a stick in the mud meant you were a grumpy old fellow who didn’t know how to enjoy himself!

6 Responses to “Their name is mud–and they’re proud of it!”

  1. bender said

    A minor point…mudskippers are not “lungfishes”…they’re “gobies” (in Japanese, “haze”). I don’t know if mudskippers use lungs (I thought they rely more on skin-breathing), but even if they do, it’s result of a totally different evolution apart from lungfishes, who are distant cousins of amphibians…and us humans.

  2. ampontan said

    Very interesting, Bender. A Japanese told me they were lungfishes. I should have done more research. I’ve used your link and comment to edit this post.

  3. Aceface said

    Should ask the emperor about this Ampontan.He is the expert on gobies.

  4. ampontan said

    Aceface: Good idea! Next time he asks me over to the palace for lunch, I’ll be sure to bring it up!

  5. Aceface said

    The emperor does invite people who share his interest in natural history.My friend who works at Yamashina Institute of Ornithology(the very institution founded by his uncle,late Marquis Yamashina and Princess Norinomiya worked for a while)was invited along with two other bird watchers to see wild Mandarin Ducks in the palace in Akasaka.
    I had a chance to talk to Akishinomiya about 15 years ago in one of the party at the World Wide Fund for Nature.So if you want to get in close encounter with the house of Chrythanthemum,becoming a naturalist is one idea.

  6. Jon said

    Adults reliving their youth playing in the mud. I like it and it looks like fun.

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