Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (84): The iron chefs live!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 10, 2008

LONG-TIME FRIENDS know that the Japanese can transform almost any behavior into an act of reverence at a Shinto festival, and here’s yet another example: Slicing and serving sushi.

The Sushikiri Festival (literally sushi-cutting) is held every 5 May at the Shimoniikawa Shinto shrine in Moriyama, Shiga, in supplication for a good harvest, health, and protection from disaster. It is now a national intangible cultural folk treasure.

Rather than professional sushi chefs, the slicing is done by two young men clad in traditional haori (half-coat) and hakama (divided skirt), as you can see in the photo. They use 20-centimeter-long metal chopsticks to hold the fish with their left hands while they carefully cut the fish with exaggerated motions using a 40-centimeter-long knife held in their right hands. (It is unusual to see metal chopsticks in Japan; most are wooden. The metal variety are more frequently seen in Korea.)

The fish on the menu every year is the funa, of which there are several varieties, none of which has a familiar English name (though many of them end in “carp”). The sushi is first cut for and served to the head priest of the shrine and the chairman of the local citizens’ association. In fact, they’re sitting in formal Japanese style directly across from the two men, though they’re not shown in the photo. (Try the second photo here to see them.) The fish is later distributed to the parishioners who’ve come to participate.

And this funa is not just the run-of-the-mill sushi; this treat has been fermented for three or four years before it’s served. The process originally came from China and has been used in Japan for about 1,000 years. The fermentation creates an odor that many people find unappetizing, but the dish has become a noted product of Shiga. (You can read more about it here and here. Those with a scientific turn of mind might find this to be of interest.)
The official story is that the festival, formally known as the Omi-no-Kenketo Festival (the sushi cutting is just one part of it) originated when funazushi was given to a divinity who drifted ashore to the banks of Lake Biwa on a raft 1,300 years ago.

But there are other stories too. Shimoniikawa is one of the six shrines in the country with Toyokiirihiko-no-Mikoto, the eldest son of the Sujin Tenno (emperor), as the enshrined deity. Some versions have it that the food was originally served to Toyokiirihiko, which would make the event closer to 2,000 years old.

Suijin is supposed to have been the 10th Tenno, but no one is sure that he actually existed. His reign years are given as 97 BC to 30 BC, which Japanese historians think is implausibly early. (His recorded life span of 119 years is just as implausible.) Accounts in the Nihon Shoki ascribe some of the same exploits to both the legendary first emperor Jimmu and to Suijin, which lead some to believe that the deeds of a Sujin who might have existed were attributed to Jimmu.

Incidentally, the Shimoniikawa shrine was in the news in March this year when it was confirmed that a Buddhist temple bell found in the storage area for the shrine’s mikoshi in May 2007 is the oldest example of a bell with both Japanese and Korean designs discovered in the country.

Cast in 1419, it is the sixth bell of this type to have ever turned up in Japan. Shown in the second photo, it is 40.6 centimeters tall, 23.9 centimeters wide, and weighs 11.2 kilograms. Reports say that it was used in the “Buddhist temple hall”, which suggests the shrine was once a joint Shinto-Buddhist facility of the kind that no longer exist, though that wasn’t explicitly stated. The Japanese decorations are the dragon heads at the top of the bell, while the Korean motifs are the plant and flower designs on the rest of the bell.

And that just goes to show: There’s no telling what you’re liable to stumble over when you start poking around in a storeroom in Japan!

3 Responses to “Matsuri da! (84): The iron chefs live!”

  1. Bender said


    Have you tried funa-zushi before? It’s fermented funa, and Shiga is famous for it. I think they’re cutting up funa-zushi here.

    I myself never have, but I want to despite the fact that the most closest relative to funa is goldfish…goldfish is, basically a red-pigmented funa>…doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

  2. ampontan said

    Bender: You’re right, that’s what it is, and they mentioned it had a distinctive odor, but I couldn’t figure out why they were calling it sushi if it was fermented. I thought it was safer to leave that part out. Thanks to your note I was able to figure that out and add another paragraph!

    I’ve never had it, but I’ll try anything once.

  3. Skye said

    I believe that this is the original kind of sushi, developed long before the modern kind we’re more familiar with. I’ve always wanted to try it, but I have never had the opportunity. I guess it’s time for a trip to Shiga…

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