Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (95): All hail the spiny lobster!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 19, 2008

AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT of most Japanese festivals is the mikoshi, or portable shrine, which is said to contain the spirit of the divinity from a specific Shinto facility. These mikoshi are carried with enthusiasm and energy through the streets during a festival, and sometimes are even used in competitions.

The organizers of the Ise Ebi Festival held in Hamajima, Mie, on the first Saturday in June also claim that a mikoshi is used in their event. They might be exaggerating for the sake of effect, however. Most mikoshi are of traditional construction, generally look the same, and are associated with a Shinto shrine.

But that’s not the case with the Ise Ebi Festival. What the folks in Hamajima carry instead is a 6.5 meter, 450 kilogram, carved Ise ebi. That would be the Panulirus japonicus, or spiny lobster, a tasty crustacean popular in Japanese cuisine.

As the name indicates, the Ise ebi is widely harvested in the Ise Shima area. In fact, it’s such an important maritime product in that region that it’s been called “the fish of Mie”.

Hamajima held its first Ise Ebi Festival in June 1961 to give thanks for the benefits it receives from the spiny lobster as a source of both food and income, and to pray for a bountiful catch that year. The imagination and enthusiasm of the local residents fueled its growth and turned it into the well-known event and tourist attraction that is has become today.

Catching the spiny lobster is prohibited from the beginning of June to the beginning of October to allow them to multiply, which is one of the reasons for the festival’s scheduling. The first catch after the season resumes is offered to the Ise Jingu, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan.

Established in the third century, that shrine is closely associated with the imperial family. Its tutelary deity is Amaterasu Omikami, the family’s mythical ancestor. During the 15th century, Ise Jingu officials traveled throughout the country proselytizing, collecting money, and promoting visits, claiming that seven trips to the shrine ensured salvation. (That last part sounds a bit like Islam, doesn’t it?)

But back to the spiny lobster!

One of the event’s principal attractions is the jakoppe parade, the jakoppe being a dance that the Hamajimanians created specifically for the festival. As Mac notes in the previous post about a similar dance created for a different festival, the personality and inclinations of the performers determine how sedate or how sexy it becomes.

And don’t pass up the rich harvest of photos from this year’s festival on this page. There are plenty of good ones here, but this one’s my favorite!

None of the available accounts or newspaper articles on the Web talk about a Shinto shrine connection with the festival. As photos of the event make clear, however, the event gets underway with a ritual conducted by Shinto priests and assisted by miko, or shrine maidens.

Oh right, I almost forgot: What does the spiny lobster taste like? I can’t compare it to an American lobster, because I’ve eaten so few of the latter. (I grew up in an area known for crabs. Most of the folks in my hometown couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat an expensive lobster when they could spend the same amount of money to buy more of the cheaper crabs instead.)

But if you’ve never had an Ise ebi, here’s a hint—the word for shrimp in Japanese is ebi. It does taste like a shrimp. Only it’s a lot bigger and a lot better!

Here’s a glimpse of the dance performed at main festival site, with the spiny lobster in the background looking like some pagan deity on an altar. The music is one of those fascinating combinations often heard in Japanese street music: The melody and rhythm are unmistakably Nippon, but it’s being played by a very Western horn section.

Meanwhile, ere’s a short video of the parade, with some of the fine, healthy Ise ebi-eating girls in Mie:

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2 Responses to “Matsuri da! (95): All hail the spiny lobster!”

  1. Sarah said

    After attending the Iseebi Matsuri this past June, I decided to incorporate my experience into my thesis project for my International Studies degree. Do you have any more information or resources that you could share with me on the festival? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  2. ampontan said

    Sarah: You’re probably better off asking them directly.

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