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.
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.
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-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.
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.
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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