Water Purification

You may conclude from the title that this post is about people purifying water. It isn't. It is really about water purifying people.

Today was the annual Daikan Misogi ceremony at Kashima Jingu shrine. Misogi means spiritual purification. This ritual is not a raucus mob scene as one typically encounters at Shinto festivals throughout the year (some of which I have described in previous posts on this blog). None the less, participation is definitely not for the faint of heart, for it involves dressing in nothing but a loin cloth for the men, or a white cotton yukata (robe) for women, and walking into chest high spring water in the middle of January, and staying there for several minutes to chant and pray. It is purposefully scheduled for what is supposed to be the coldest time of the year in Japanese tradition, about January 20 to February 4th. (Daikan = most cold).

Misogi rituals have their roots in old days when people would take a dip in a nearby river or pond before entering a Shinto shrine. It has come down as a part of modern shrine etiquette in the form of stopping at the fountain (usually found at the entrance of a shrine) in order to pour water over each hand and one's mouth to cleanse the body and mind before entering. Misogi rituals are said to bring good luck and wash away bad. Today, the participants would certainly earn their good luck.

As of last night, we were not sure if we would be able to go today. Yesterday it had alternately rained and snowed all day and last night snowed enough to cover us once again in few centemeters of that mysterious white stuff from the sky. Once again, Momo the Wonder Dog was brought into the laundry room for the night. She had gotten wet from the rain earlier in the day. A chore, and not the choice of her or us, but it was "not a fit night out for man nor beast", so in she came. This has been a record cold winter for Japan with temperatures averaging about 5 degrees Fahrenheit lower than usual. Kerosene use (the common fuel for home heating in Japan) doubled this January and prices are nearly 40% higher than a year ago. As we used to say in pidgin English back on Maui, "Lucky you live Hawaii, eh?" Well, at least I can still say, "Lucky I no live Ukraine." Small comfort, but I'll take what I can get.

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Our garage and house from across a field today.

The sky this morning was a bit cloudy, with a red sunrise but had signs of clearing, and by the time we left for the shrine in mid-morning, the sky was blue, and the roads were passable with some caution in the shaded areas where ice still lingered. I thought about the people who would actually be stepping into the water this morning. What must they have been thinking yesterday and last night as snowflakes drifted down on their homes?

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The Haiden or "hall of worship"

The Haiden is the hall of worship at a shrine. Behind it is the Honden or inner shrine where the diety dwells. Between the two is the Heiden, or hall of offerings which is only open to priests. Haiden Heiden Honden. Very confusing to a gaijin like me. Sounds like "hey there, hi there, ho there" from the Mickey Mouse Club song. I'm not poking fun at Shinto or Japanese language, rather at myself and how the mind works to connect new things to ones already in memory, however unrelated. But perhaps not a bad mnemonic to remember the words by.

As we entered the shrine grounds, it was evident that not much snow had made it past the huge trees to the ground. There was still snow on the roofs of the buildings, however. The participants and priests were in the Haiden, shown above, prior to making their way to the natural spring where the ceremony is held. As they chanted and a drum was beaten, visitors stopped in front to offer their loose change and a prayer.

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If you go out in the woods today you'd better not go alone...

Soon, the people who would be braving the cold waters were walking along the broad path that leads from the Haiden to 'mitarashi no ike' (purification pond) which is fed by a 'reisen' or spiritual spring. The pond is one of the seven mysteries of Kashima Jingu, because it is said that no matter who stands in the pond, short or tall, the water always comes up their chest level. I'll take their word for it.

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At the pond, a crowd is waiting. The two restaurants/shops have their wares on display as well as charcoal pits at which they heat 'ayu', a river fish similar to trout, and various flavors of dango, rice dumplings, a common snack throughout Japan, made a colorful green by yomogi (mugwort) or yellow by miso (fermented soy).

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Off to one side, the participants changed out of their warm street clothes into just enough white cotton cloth to cover their, um, basics. They assembled in a square immediately in front of the pond and began warm up exercises. I don't know what the temperature was, but you can judge by the clothing of the spectators. I would guess it was around 5C or about 40F. They were led through warm ups and chants which they followed in unison. Except for the ages of the men, one who accidentally stumbled upon this scene might think they were witnessing a fraternity hazing rather than a religious ceremony.

Finally, the group moved toward the steps of the pond and each person gave a sort of salute and a shout before placing a foot into the water. I would guess there were about sixty or more men and six or so women, with ages ranging from 20-something to well past retirement age.

The closest I have come to this experience was in my childhood in California. Our family had a swimming pool (unheated) and each spring, my father would offer a dollar to the first of us four kids to dive into the pool. I remember winning one year and as I recall, the temperature of the pool was 45 F (7.2 C). I am not ready to repeat that episode unless the stakes are substantially increased. I shudder, literally, to think what the temperature of the pond was today.

Once in the pond, they pulled sheets of paper from their headbands upon which were printed prayers which they chanted in unison. This went on for many minutes. Far too long even from my relatively warm perspective. Long enough for me to move around and find various locations from which to photograph the event, usually by holding the camera as high as I could, pushing the shutter button and hoping for the best.

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I don't think carp bite...do they?

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It wasn't always easy getting a shot. The official photographers across the pond had a reserved area.

At last I found a relatively uncrowded spot and put my tripod on the moss covered roots of a great tree which spread over the pond. The lighting was rather dark, so the tripod, coupled with the timer, allowed me to take longer exposure.

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After coming out of the pond, they all very quickly donned their warm clothing and headed home or to one of the restaurants at the shrine for some hot green tea and perhaps Zenzai (warm, sweet azuki bean soup with rice cake) as we did. On the way out of Kashima Jingu, my eye was drawn to the Heiden (hey there!) roof where the sun was melting the snow and the resulting water vapor made it look like it was steaming hot. A beautiful cast iron lantern stood to one side. It turned out to have been made in the Bunsei years - 1818 to 1830 - of the Edo period, making it about 200 years younger than the buildings.

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Edo Period Lantern

Even though noon was approaching, the main gate (or mon) also still had some snow on its roof making it, I guess, a "snow mon". Sorry. I can't resist a bad pun.

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"Frosty the snow mon...."


The Moody Minstrel said...

I've often heard about that ceremony as I've met a number of people that have participated in it, but I've never had a chance to see it first hand. Ah, the joys of having free time...

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...


Ah, the joys of having free time, in Japan...

There must be hundreds of festivals and ceremonies in Japan.

One at a time. Thank you for this one! :)))

Happysurfer said...

Dear Pandabonium, thank you for this enlightening read. Very nice pictures - fascinated by the Edo lamp. Thanks. Love the captions too.

YD said...


It feels cold even from here!

It is fun to read your posts of various traditions and customs in Japan. and I can barely wait for the colourful Summer ones!

Oh wait, hanami is coming soon right? You and moody better put up some real good posts... ok?


Pandabonium said...

Well, it was a Sunday after all, Moody. Unfortunately free time is also unpaid time, so it is a double edged sword. And @low@ as you well know, there are two basic elements that a person must have to do as he/she pleases. One is time. The other is money. It is rare for those two planets to align for me. So many festivals so little train fare.

Happysurfer, I like that lantern too and will take more pictures of it sometime. Everytime I visit the shrine I find something I didn't notice or examine closely before. Sometimes it is an artifact, other times it may be a beautiful tree.

Yes, YD. Japanese Buddhists celebrate Buddha's birthday as Hana Matsuri on April 8th (even though he was really born in May). Last year we saw beautiful blossoms at Katori Jingu shrine and a park in Kashima City. But before that comes ume festival in late February -see my post on that from last year; "Ume Festival: When Is An Apricot A Plum? " in the May archive.

Robin said...

Thanks for the wonderful post. Like Moody, I have heard of this ceremony but have never seen it.

What makes people go through the extremes? Is it love, hope or faith?

In Indian culture, Thaipusam, devotee carry out macabre rites of body piercing in repentance.

Pandabonium said...

I can only guess. I may be way off, and it is always a dubious thing to guess another person's motivations - especially someone in another culture.

I doubt that it has deep religious significance today. More likely a belief or hope that it will bring luck in the form of health and wealth. That and a kind of self affirmation by showing themselves they can do it. There are people in various cold climes around the world who participate in 'Walrus Clubs' or 'Polar Bear Clubs' and plunge into icy waters each year just for that reason.

Perhaps Moody has learned something about that from the people he knows who have done it.

I would prefer to plunge into a warm tropical ocean myself. If I'm going to push myself, it will be while hiking or kayaking.

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

Talk about Thaipusam, I can't wait to be in the march, coming Feb 11th.

Either we really determine to go extra mile, usually we'll be pushing hard when we're in some extreme situation.

It is the believe that gets us in, and hopefully takes us out.

The Moody Minstrel said...

I doubt that it has deep religious significance today. More likely a belief or hope that it will bring luck in the form of health and wealth.

Actually, I've met three different men (one of whom is a coworker) that participate in that festival because they practice karate. They believe that the waters of Kashima Shrine are filled with the natural force of the martial deity who is one of the main spirits worshipped there. By bathing in the pond, they not only purify themselves but also receive the "fighting spirit".

I know one of the three believes in it very fervently. The other two aren't sure, but they do it because the others in their clubs do.

BTW - It was Sunday, but I had to work in the morning, and I spent half of the afternoon digging my in-laws' front door out of the avalanche and the other half reinstalling my computer's OS. No time out for fun...

Pandabonium said...

Thanks Moody. That is exactly why I prefaced my comment with a big caveat that it is a dubious enterprise to guess another's motivation. I was right and proved it by being wrong. (?)

That is interesting to know. I am glad that some people are serious about such things. Thank you.
An icy dip would certainly put me in a fighting spirit.

I understand full well about your time constraints and the factors at play. You are a busy guy even when you don't have to dig your way out of the drive way and fix a computer, and I hope you know how much I admire/envy your work and long to be efficacious in my own pursuits once again.

I'm in a period of frustrating unproductiveness (if that is a word), so don't take my occasional defensive sounding comments as anything other than an indication of that frustration.

I value your friendship, knowledge, and input, and apologize for being a curmudgeonly old Panda at times.

madozsts - a religious insurgent group in the land of Oz.

FH2O said...

And to think that the majority of people I know here in Malaysia shower in hot water! (um, yours truly included! oops!)