A tip-off from another ALT about a little-known festival where half-naked men jump into the icy cold sea and have a tug of war was enough to persuade myself to check it out. It made for a more exciting than usual Sunday afternoon!
Mihama is a fishing town in the south of Fukui prefecture. It’s famous for the Rainbow Line, a scenic driving route where you can see the Five Lakes of Mikata and the local nuclear power station. Yet even in an out in the sticks place like this, there are some awesome festivals.
When my friend Teari and I turned up at the Lake Centre there was little activity going on apart from balloon-making and a tombola. Things started getting a bit more exciting when the mochi band started up, and we were of course called to the stage to hit the gooey rice dough with a metre-long hammer whilst everyone said “Yoshi” in time with our beat. I’m sure the film crew there also got shots of us foreigners getting in the spirit of the festival and we’ll probably be on local TV tomorrow!
After eating a local dish of kaki-age don (fried shrimp over rice), we’d noticed that most people had left the centre. An excited tourist officer must’ve seen us looking lost and came to help to us. She was so excited to have foreigners at this small family festival that she was literally jumping from foot-to-foot as she spoke to us! Yuko, her name was, told us that the part of the festival we’d been waiting for, the naked men of course, was five minutes down the road to an even smaller fishing village. So off we went.
Sure enough there was a bridge lined with wrapped-up onlookers and flags with colourful fish emblems on them. “Gaijin!”, said the man grilling ika squid and handed us a piece of the grilled white meat, no exceptions accepted. Seeing huge barrels of sake being sold in bamboo trunk mug, I decided that’d be the perfect tipple to wash down the salty taste of the squid. It seemed the locals had the same idea and were eagerly awaiting the bare-chested men with a bamboo mug in their gloved hands.
Yuko had told us that, the festival Hiruga Suichi Tsunahiki Matsuri (Underwater Tug-of-War) has been taking place for the last 360 years! According to legend, an evil sea serpent once entered Hiruga Lake from the Sea of Japan. The people drove the snake out by using a huge rope in the water. Now, the rope in the tug-of-war represents the snake and the aim is to rip the rope into two pieces. According to our new friend, the ritual also ensures that the Shinto gods give plentiful catches of fish in the coming year. This festival gives men the chance to act uber-macho and for women, the chance to eye the young men up, but that is just my theory.
The jolly locals started cheering as the men, old and young, appeared dressed only in white shorts and a coloured hachi machi head band. One even had a tattoo, which could’ve meant he had yakuza associations, but it didn’t cause a stir. Their torsos were red from pre-drinking and goose-pimpled from the just above zero temperature. Onlookers were urging them to jump into the water, some even offering to push them off! It seemed the bravest, or drunkest, men went first and everyone cheered as they jumped off the bridge. Profanities became universally understood in situations like these, and we easily got the gist of their “Itai Itai” as they swam downstream to the waiting rope.
For the next twenty minutes, the forty men pulled at the rope, tearing off straw that had been braiding around it. Their drunkenness must have been wavered by the cold as they did a good job at heaving at the rope, whilst a strong current pulled the rope downstream. Men on the banks also pulled at the rope and finally, the rope broke in two. The men who had pulled the longest part of the ‘snake’ had won and dragged the rope upstream in victorious spirits. The other team was still smiling as they clambered up the rocks and made their way back to a warm building, for presumably, more sake.
Within minutes everyone had dispersed to warmer places and all the excitement was over. We drove home happy to have seen such a bizarre event in a small town, where foreigners are such a novelty that they are still given free squid. Thanks Mihama town folk!