Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (65): Chilling out at Japanese midwinter festivals

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 4, 2008

EXTREME SPORTS surged in popularity from the late 1980s to early 1990s, but Japanese men have been regularly testing the limits of physical endurance (or reckless folly) for centuries. They’re not bungee jumping or skateboarding down a stairway railing, however—they’re enjoying themselves by taking part in mid-winter Shinto festivals.

A small group of these stalwarts ranging in age from 17 to 39 were the stars of the first extreme festival of the new year from 30 December to 1 January in three districts of Goshogawara, Aomori Prefecture. This is one called the Iizume Inari Jinja Hadaka Mairi in Japanese, but in English that’s the Naked Visit to the Iizume Inari Shinto shrine.

Well, the guys aren’t really buck naked, as you can see from the photo. They’ve just stripped down to their fundoshi, or loincloths, to carry large sacred ropes, rice, and bales of straw to the shrine as an offering in supplication for a bountiful harvest and protection from illness and disaster in the new year. They’re hauling a 100-kilogram load over a 400-meter course—uphill—to the shrine.

At the far north of the main island of Honshu, Aomori Prefecture is one of the coldest places in the country. This year the temperature at the start of their trek was -3° C.

I can think of other ways I’d rather ask the divinities for favors, but this has been going on for more than 300 years now, so they must be doing something right.

A spray of fireworks at 1:00 p.m. was the signal for the (fool?)hardy worshippers to get started, as they rushed out of their homes to purify themselves with cold water from a large vat before taking up their burdens. To keep their mind off the elements, or to keep from cursing themselves for agreeing to participate, they chanted “Saigi, saigi!” as they made their way uphill.

And I’m sure the traditional Japanese musical accompaniment put smiles on their face and a spring in their step as they desperately counted the meters remaining to the shrine.

Japanese festivals always have a twist, and in this one the twist is the crucial role of the spectators. Friendly townsfolk turned out to encourage the men by bringing along buckets filled with more cold water to splash them as they passed by.

Saigi, saigi!

That would certainly make me trot up the hill faster. I’d also make a point of remembering who threw the water and spend all of the next year plotting my revenge!

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, the women have their own version of this extreme sport. Two posts down the page, the miko, or shrine maidens, at the Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture are shown throwing paper fortunes in the air as part of an annual ceremony to make sure they’re mixed well before they’re sold to the public visiting the shrine on New Year’s Day.

The Keta Taisha seems to be where the action is for miko. On the 31st, they had another ceremony for specially selected candidates from throughout the country in which they purified themselves in the Sea of Japan.

A total of 54 miko, the youngest 16, participated. Give the priests at the shrine credit for coming up with a diabolically clever way to convince young women to run around in the frigid surf in the middle of winter—tell them they’ve been specially selected! The temperature outside was 1.7°C, which meant it probably was all they could do just to stand there—but no, they went into the Sea of Japan dressed as you see in the photo.

Fortunately for them, they didn’t strip down to fundoshi for their purification. Heck, if they did, I’d have been up there taking pictures myself instead of writing about it!

But they did more than grow icicles under their armpits during their trip to Ishiakawa. They also studied the proper frame of mind and the proper behavior required for their duties as shrine maidens.

I’m sure the classes were successful. After that purification ceremony, they should be able to handle any task at the shrine with equanimity.

For a look at the video of the TBS report, try this page. It’s all in Japanese, but the announcer isn’t saying anything I didn’t already tell you. It probably won’t be up for too long, so jump on it!

2 Responses to “Matsuri da! (65): Chilling out at Japanese midwinter festivals”

  1. ponta said

    A total of 54 miko, all aged 16, participated.

    A total of 54 miko, aged 16 the youngest, from all over Japan.

    They all look really young though.

    Thanks for the video. I felt cold myself watching it—maybe I am purified too.

  2. ampontan said

    Thanks for picking that up, Ponta. I’ll fix it.
    That’s what I get for doing things past my bedtime!

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