John Dougill writes,
Hot, hot and humid! At this time of year you may feel all you want to do is wade through cold water. Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine. Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for your legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.
Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity). The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality. In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.
The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold and invigorating. Participants pay Y200 and get a candle with which to wade upstream and set before Inoue Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami. Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.
Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water. There are black stones available too from the bottom of the stream, which are said to have a special deterrent power for disease demons, particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children. A suitable donation to the shrine is expected in exchange. On the way back, at the stalls in front of the shrine, you can get Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).
Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’. This is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode. Unlike the overcrowded Gion Festival, this is on a more manageable scale and reflects the community nature of Shinto. There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!
Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is professor of British Studies at Kyoto’s Ryukoku University and the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History, In Search of the Hidden Christians, and Japan’s World Heritage Sites. He is also a contributor to our book, Deep Kyoto: Walks.