Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (36): Whales, abalone, and fighting over a basket

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 22, 2007

THIS WEEK, Mie Prefecture was the scene of a few smaller festivals that had a more down-home feel than some of the extravaganzas that are staged, but every bit as much fun. One was the Osatsu Tenno Whale Festival, held in Osatsu-cho, Toba, on the 14th. Local youth groups and students from primary and secondary schools parade with two mikoshi modeled after whales. Mikoshi are portable Shinto shrines; the idea is that the spirit of the local shrine divinity is inside. The two whale mikoshi in Osatsu-cho symbolize parent and child.

The whales aren’t the only attraction. There are marching bands, floats featuring characters from the Urashima Taro fable, traditional music and dancing, and, as is often the case during these events, onlookers lining the street splashing water on the participants to help them beat the heat

Maybe the guys in the Ishiki region of the prefecture would have liked people to splash water on them to cool off during the heat of the action in the annual Zaruyaburi festival, held this week at the Ishikia and Yakumo shrines. About 70 or 80 young men participate in a so-called naked festival to battle each other for control of a zaru basket. Legend has it that the man who ends up with the basket will have good luck and health during the year. A naked festival is not quite as dangerous as it sounds—during most naked festivals in Japan, the men wear traditional loincloths similar to those worn by sumo wrestlers, so they don’t have to worry about taking a shot below the belt (or below where their belt would usually be) as they grapple for the prize.

I think the women of Mie have a better idea for competing than getting naked and fighting over control of some basket. They choose to dive for abalone instead. The Shirongo Shrine’s Shirongo Festival was held this week on a day when catching fish is normally prohibited. At the sound of a note from a triton horn, the women dive into the water simultaneously and compete to be the first to catch an abalone. The women who catch the first male and female abalone offer them at the shrine to pray for safety sea journeys and an abundant catch.

Shown here is the winner, who has placed her abalone on a ship plank. She’s entered the shrine still in her wet uniform, through the torii seen in the back, to make the offering.

Here’s an arty little video clip about the women who catch the abalone produced by ABC in Australia. It lasts five minutes, and you need RealPlayer.

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