Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (108): Slippery when wet

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 14, 2009

WATER FIGHTING for fun seems to be a universal human phenomenon. Put two children into a stream or swimming pool, and it won’t be long before they’re splashing away at each other and laughing like crazy. What kid doesn’t like water pistols and water balloons? We’ve all been to carnivals where one of the attractions involves throwing a ball to hit a spot on a board connected to a switch that pulls the seat out from under a hapless volunteer sitting atop a pool. Sometimes they don’t even bother with the mechanism and just let people throw big wet sponges at a guy with his head stuck through a hole in the board. And I remember one summer evening as a kid watching in envy as my parents and a few adults in the neighborhood got gloriously silly while having a mock battle with a garden hose.

Of course the Japanese like water battles too, and of course they go everybody one better. At the Kashima Shinto shrine in Fukushima, Okayama, they turn one into a religious festival every year on the fourth Sunday in October.

It all began more than 800 years ago when a plague ravaged the area. On the instruction of the divinities, some “bright children” (the reports say prodigies, but they don’t explain why) started splashing each other with muddy water, and the plague disappeared.

Here’s the sequence of festive events as handed down over the centuries. After an initial ceremony at the shrine, the parishioners parade through the area with a mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine, to a separate location. There another ceremony is held to open the cask of consecrated sake, which in this case is doburoku.

Wouldn’t you know there was liquor involved! And in this case, it’s consecrated, so they’ve got a legitimate reason for calling it “spirits”.

After opening the barrel of spiritually infused sake, everyone heads back to the shrine. The various festival officials take their seats in a specified order at a special site erected on the shrine grounds called a mizuya, or water house. Then they sing the Noh song of Takasago.

Liquor: Check. Singing: Check.

Once the song is over, they offer the consecrated sake to the divinities twice. That’s what a group of young men outside the mizuya have been waiting for. All the young dudes start yelling “Mizu da!” (It’s water!), and douse the older guys inside with muddy water from buckets. But the festival officials inside aren’t defenseless—oh, no, not at all. They fight back with ammunition from tanks of water of their own under the floor. Soon water is flying inside and out across the engawa, an interior porch in traditional Japanese dwellings.

Just in case everybody isn’t wet and dirty enough, they add some straw to the muddy water in larger tanks outside, and then toss in people who’ve gotten married in the past year. According to one account they also push in married men who’ve taken their wife’s family name (which happens sometimes in Japan) and middle-aged people. Apparently no one leaves the premises dry.

Now that everyone’s gotten good and wet and laughed themselves silly, the shrine officials toss pieces of mochi rice to the crowd and everyone goes home and gets wet again in the shower. The festival, which has been designated an important cultural treasure of the prefecture, is held in supplication for the good health and prosperity of the residents. Who knew muddy water could be good for you? If it comes to that, who knew a water fight could be turned into something so exalted?

Lest you get the wrong impression, here’s another festival that demonstrates the Japanese are perfectly capable of demonstrating their veneration and respect for water. This one’s called the O-Mizugaeshi, or Water Returning, and it’s held at the same time of year at a local pond in the Azumi district of Matsumoto, Nagano.

This event is much more recent—it began in 1992, and one of the prime movers was the Azumino Tourist Association. It starts with a ceremony at the Hotaka Shinto shrine, which is next to the pond itself. After the ceremony, some priests and local representatives board two boats and make a slow circuit of the pond. They bring along some water taken from the local Sai River at the point where it and the Hotaka and Takase rivers converge. Then, once they’ve finished circling the pond, they ceremoniously pour in the river water. And that’s it.

This year about 50 attended the festival, which is held to prevent shipwrecks and other disasters involving water. One of the men on the boat was a university professor studying local festivals (now there’s a gig I’d like to have). He said, “These days we take the existence of water for granted, but it’s very important to have a festival of this sort, which gives thanks for water.”

Doesn’t that go to show you really never can tell? Suppose someone told you there were two festivals, one involving a fight with muddy water and the other an elegant ceremony of reverence for nature, and that one of them began 800 years ago and the other was not quite 18 years old.

Would you have been able to match the festival with its age?

Afterwords: It’s been almost six months without a festival post. That’s way too long! Mea culpa and moshiwake arimasen!

One Response to “Matsuri da! (108): Slippery when wet”

  1. Weekly J-Links 12…

    It’s Saturday, so here are the interesting articles discovered this week: 😉 Jomon-era Houses at Seizan Park in Utsunomiya Time-lapse video of Mt Fuji, Miyajima, Iwate (video) Matsuri da! (108): Slippery when wet Conan the……

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