Praying for Healthy Legs – the Mitarashi Festival

Imagine a long, hot, and humid summer day. Your legs are swollen and your mouth is longing for a cold drink. What’s better than immersing yourself in a cool stream of crystal clear spring water? Shimogamo Jinja in Kyoto hosts the most refreshing festival in Japan, 御手洗祭 Mitarashi-sai, where you can relax in a sacred river. The local water is believed to cure diseases, especially those of your legs; and if you take a sip from the nearby waterfall, your internal organs may be cleansed as well. 

A cup of spring water can be obtained for a small offering (note: I took this photo in 2019 and the cups were re-usable back then. The water was distributed in disposable cups in 2022).
Water from the underground spring is available for purchase in corked bottles. Take it home and share with your beloved ones suffering from health issues.

The cleansing festivals of Shinto are especially important during the global pandemic that, unlike in other parts of the world, has not been finished in Japan just yet. Society is struggling with a massive surge of new infections, noting hundred thousand cases daily. History repeats itself – Kyoto has seen many epidemics throughout the eras, but it still stands strong and proud. No disease nor war has been able to destroy this ancient city. That being said, the Kamo river was once a reservoir for abandoned corpses, as there was no space left in the city to bury them respectfully due to a large number of victims of a massive famine and its following pandemic.

Tips: wear a skirt, yukata, or loose trousers, something that can be easily dragged up, so that you won’t touch the water with your clothing; bring a small towel to wipe your feet afterwards; wear shoes that can be easily taken off and put back on; bring some cash for omamori!
The entry fee is 300 yen and includes a candle for making the offering.

Well, but it’s all in the past. Nowadays, the Kyotoites and tourists enjoy spending time at the rivers and ponds inside this eternal city. The Shimogamo Shrine is located just at the Demachiyanagi delta, a popular place for leisure (especially for the university students!) at the river banks. The shrine is one of the most important centers of Shinto worship in Japan, founded by the Kamo clan, whom I mentioned before in my mountain Kamo Jinja post. The sub-shrine, 井上社 Inoue-sha or 御手洗社 Mitarashi-sha, is dedicated to the sacred well and the bubbles forming in the water are the origin of… delicious mitarashi dango! Mitarashi dango are beloved by almost everyone and they are even being offered to the gods of Inoue-sha at the altar.

Mitarashi dango (sticky rice “dumplings”) and the sacred water placed on the altar of Inoue-sha as an offering for the deity.
Seasonal vegetables harvested locally and offered to Seoritsuhime-no-mikoto.
The festival can be accessed during the day and in the evening. It’s more crowded in the evening but the heat during the day is difficult to handle. Night festival is also a great opportunity to admire the lanterns!

Mitarashi-sha was originally located on the eastern bank of Demachiyanagi. The precincts were destroyed during the Onin War, as the whole Kyoto was burnt to the ground. Shimogamo Jinja adopted the deities of Mitarashi-sha around 1592-1596 and placed them on a pedestal just above the celebrated spring. The name “Inoue” (with 上 kanji for “up”) indicates its elevated position. The well was a suitable choice for the deity, 瀬織津姫命 Seoritsuhime-no-mikoto, as she is the goddess who washes the human sins away in the rapids of a river. The sins travel along the stream, up to the sea where they disappear.

Black stones harvested from the bottom of the pond can be taken home by the pilgrims, as well. These stones seem to have a special deterrent power for the disease demons, particularly the one that causes temper tantrums of children.
A correct etiquette of offering the disease-dispelling amulet is to write your name and age on one side, then wash both sides under the spring water…
…let your omamori flow in the basin…
…these light-weight foot-shaped wooden plates are washing up back to the well.

Throughout the eras, the Mitarashi pond has been used as a place for purification. It is adorned by a red wheel-shaped bridge (輪橋 Soribashi) that is not available for pedestrians; however, during the Mitarashi Festival, the pilgrims are required to pass under the bridge. The ever-cold water of the pond is considered to be a solution for leg issues, but Seoritsuhime is also believed to protect visitors from all kinds of plagues. No wonder why, especially in the midst of the global pandemic, the Mitarashi-sai attracts so many people praying for health and protection.

Mitarashi-sai in 2019, before the global disaster…
Crossing under Soribashi.
The festival features a lot of stalls located outside of the shrine, at the surrounding forest.

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  • Mitarashi-sai: Shimogamo-jinja, Kyoto
  • Around 22-26 July each year
  • Entry fee: 300 JPY (includes an offering candle and a plastic bags for carrying your shoes)
  • Opening hours: 9:00-20:00

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