Shimogamo’s water festival

People carrying candles through the ice-cold water to pray for protection for their legs over the coming year, though this year mobile phones were also conspicuous

Shimogamo’s mitaraisai (water festival) is one of Green Shinto’s favourites, about which we’ve reported in previous years (see here for nice pics of 2014, or here for a full account of last year’s event, or here for an early account and mention of Kyoto’s power spot).

The season is hot and humid (this year around 32 degrees and 90% humidity) so cooling off in a cold sacred stream is most welcome. Particularly when it gives year-round protection to your legs!

When I say the water is ‘cold’, I mean absolutely freezing. The origins of the stream appear to be unknown, but it must come from deep underground for there is not even a touch of summer warmth. Instead the iciness is so painful that for the first few minutes it seems impossible to bear and people cry out in disbelief. Once in the stream however such is the pressure of the crowd behind that there is no escape by scampering for high ground. And soon, without even realising it, the body adjusts to the shock and what at first seemed intolerable gradually becomes bearable, even pleasant.  By the end, when people emerge, it’s with a smile!

Shimogamo Shrine in its best evening garb

In recent years the festival has grown much more popular and become a tourist event as much as a local rite, and the shrine has extended the time from four to nine days in all. They have also had to stake out waiting lines in zigzag fashion like at an airport, though at non-peak times you can just walk straight through and pay your 300 yen.

Each year I have the impression the shrine staff put their heads together and come up with a new idea how to improve the event. Pebbles from the river have been put up for sale. Sacred water is offered as a drink. Special ema are offered for Y200, which can be floated on the water. And this year for the first time there was a new style of fortune telling, with attendees splashing their blank fortune slips in water in order to reveal the result.

The fortune telling appeals to people of all ages, from babies to students to the elderly

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