Fri, Feb 21, 2020

Okayama Mizukake Festival: Fukushima city’s splash of local tradition

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Splashing water for health and luck
By Louise Adele Carroll / CIR for Fukushima city

The Mizukake Festival is the local ‘water splashing’ festival of Kashima Shrine in Okayama, a small town nestled at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of Fukushima city. Don’t let its modest location deceive you though, this festival is rich in history and was proudly designated as the 26th Important Intangible Cultural Property of Fukushima Prefecture on March 30, 1982. 

The day starts, as all good festivals do, with a drink: A generous cup, or two, of doburoku rice wine. Brewed locally for the festival, the sacred wine is thick and sweet. The inside of the main shrine is open, with rice, radishes, and of course sake, stacked neatly before the altar, and the walls lined with pictures and records of the Mizukake Festival’s long history.

The festival has been held officially for over 50 years, but boasts a history of more than 800, with records going back as far as 1176. The ripples of this long history are reflected in the first part of the festival, the omikoshi shinko. An omikoshi shinko is a procession to move a kami god, often from one shrine to another, or to return a kami to the main shrine. Long ago in the 10th century, however, local shrines were less common, especially in smaller villages, and kami were instead enshrined in houses. The omikoshi shinko of the Mizukake Festival preserves this tradition. The procession thus winding down from Kashima Shrine to the house where the kami was enshrined this year, a traditional, two-story farmhouse. Watching as the rites to move the kami are conducted in the distinctly Showa era living room makes it feel as if we have slipped back in time.

Back at the shrine, in an adjacent building, the elders are seated to a meal, as if at the last supper. Outside a crowd of locals and eager cameramen bustle at the edges of the roped arena, where the men gather around a large barrel and small tubs brimming with water. While this water may offer cool relief in the summer, in the brisk autumn air participants wet their bare legs and arms to brace themselves for the cold. The elders finish the rites and their meal, the men huddle closer to the water, the MC’s inputs peter out and the crowd goes silent.

Waiting in the cold for the call to begin.

Suddenly somebody calls ‘Mizu da!,’ and the whole scene erupts; water tossed in sweeping arches onto the elders inside. At first large wooden shutters are hauled out as defense but are soon abandoned, and a deep well full of water revealed in the buildings floor. The water-throwing now coming from both sides.

An agricultural town at the meeting point of two rivers, water was both life-giver and life-taker to the people of Okayama. To be splashed with water brings a person luck for the year and washes away sickness, but also sturdies their resolution against the rain and mud of floods and typhoons.

When the last splash is thrown, the victors are declared, and the participants cheer ‘banzai!’ But it is not over yet. Straw is now spread over the muddy ground, as well as a generous amount stuffed into the large barrel. Now it is time for the oke-ire, which involves the men lifting each other into the barrel beginning with the leader, and followed by the chief brewer, important representatives, sponsors, the youth leader and any newlyweds, who must all be rolled back out before the next person is lifted in.

This part of the festival was my favorite by far. The crowd were energetic and vocal, and the men predictably comical. Once the established order was complete, it appeared essentially a free-for-all, with men chasing after each other, grabbing each other’s arms and feet, and ganging up on friends. The announcer even slipped in a call for extra applause as the heaviest participant was finally hauled in.

Men stuff each other into the barrel.

While even the locals agree that the Mizukake Festival is neither the grandest nor the most audacious festival, there is something truly heart-warming about seeing local people, unbridled from the pressures of modern day life, simply enjoying themselves in the moment: Just as their fathers, grandfathers and forefathers did before them.

(Photos courtesy of Louise Adele Carroll)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

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Louise Adele Carroll

Louise grew up in Wollongong, Australia, between the ocean and the mountains, before moving to Melbourne to study Japanese and then to Fukushima city in 2018, where she now lives and works. She loves the wild atmosphere of Japanese festivals and the stunning backdrop of Fukushima’s sweeping mountains.

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