Summer in Kyoto is hot, hot and humid! At this time of year all one wants 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 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 (painfully so!) and very invigorating. Participants pay Y300 for which they get a candle to wade with upstream and set before Mitarashi 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. The idea is that the spiritually charged water will infuse you with the strength of the kami. Following this one walks past a display of black stones taken from the bottom of the stream, which are said to be a special deterrent for disease demons – particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children!
In front of the shrine the newly furnished enmusubi shrine attracts groups of yukata girls, and amongst the stalls set up for the occasion are the popular 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’. Here is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode. This year the festival has been extended from three days to be a week-long affair, so that unlike the crowded Gion Festival this is on a more manageable scale. There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!