My friends and I visited a super interesting Japanese festival called ‘Yonekawa Mizukaburi’ in the small town of Yonekawa, Tome City in Miyagi Prefecture in February 2020. I have planned to write down my experience during the festival since then, but only now have I been motivated to do it.
What makes the festival special is that recently the festival has been designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage event. The organizers have been trying to popularize the festival and attract domestic and international tourists.
The festival commenced with the prayer at the local Daijiji Temple in the middle of the town, followed by the procession of festival participants clad from head to half-body (or to toe for some hardcore folks) in outlandish straw coats tied with shimenawa or Shinto straw rope. The transformation from mere mortals into visiting deities was complete.
I kid you not; it was probably one of the most interesting scenes I have ever seen in Japan. When you have more than dozens of adults running around like a group of scarecrows brought to life by some wicked magic, it is such a sight to behold. I thought that was it — that was the highlight of the day.
But then something even more wonderful happened. They don’t call the festival ‘mizukaburi‘, which literally means water-covered, for nothing. Because every participant, onlooker, and other town-dwellers were soon engaged in a fiery (or rather watery?) fight with buckets and pails of water as the weapon of choice.
At first, the folks donning the straw coats will throw the water into the air or to houses, said to bless and for good luck. However, along the way, they started to splash water onto themselves, which in turn splashed the nearby people. And things just got chaotic from thereon.
Now, obviously, the straw coat itself is not a very comfortable thing to wear. It’s rough and itchy and kind of loose. After all the running, most of the straws fell from the hastily-tied wearables. In some cases, they were stolen by some onlookers, who believed that the straw stalks were lucky amulets, so they plucked the stalks whenever they got the chance.
As time progressed, the once united group of festival participants split into several smaller groups moving towards the hills. They paid respect to a shrine before continuing into even higher hills to visit the last shrine at the very top.
By now, some people have been stripped out of their straws, leaving just exposed white shorts and white sarashi or white cloth wrapped around their stomachs. I could only imagine how cold it must have felt for them since the festival took place at the height of winter.
Exhausted, the sullen-looking ‘scarecrows’ climbed the hill and proceeded slowly until their final stop, the shrine at the top. This was where the festivity ended, and I had fun watching them bowing in unison before the shrine.
I smiled wide as I traced my steps back to the festival ground, where they had stalls for food and drinks. We were awestruck as it was one of the most fun festivals we had ever experienced. With our stomachs full and tons of photos as memories, we returned to Sendai later that day, hoping to visit again one day.