Naked Men Festival, Mihama

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!

 

Mihama, Katsuyama and the best cafes along the way

Friday

Sophie: Hey, where should we go this weekend?

Zoya: Err, I don’t know. But whatever we do, I want a lie in and then good coffee.

Sophie: Ok, let’s go to Mihama.

Zoya: Ok, ikimashoo!

This is how an empty weekend turns into one full of adventures in Fukui-ken.  Last weekend was especially reminiscent of our travelling relationship.

Saturday

I pull up outside Zoya’s apartment at the compromised time of 10am.  She runs out with her coffee flask in hand.  ‘Can we stop at a bakery? I need breakfast’.  Two cheese buns later and we are both happy.

We whizz south to Tsuruga.  We see three surfers bobbing on a non-existent swell but having a good time nonetheless.  We drive past what I think is the ugliest city in Fukui, known only for its nuclear power stations which blight the area but are photo-shopped out of tourist brochures.  We bypass the Nuclear Power Information Centre which, I can can imagine could be really interesting about a very serious topic and there  no doubt will be cute rabbits signalling why nuclear power is best for the country.  Japan can turn anything, however boring into something cute and fun, such as the traffic cones here which are in the shape of frogs, rabbits or tigers!

Mikuni Rainbow Line is signalled and we take the 1000 yen toll road.  It is a small price to pay for the scenic drive around lakes and to a view point where you can see five different lakes of varying colours.  On this cloudy day they all looked the same to me, but what was impressive were the steep sea cliffs and black sand beaches which looked impossible to reach.  At the familiar tourist café and souvenir shop a man asked us the usual questions of ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Do you work here?’.  I learnt the hard way to be careful of every syllable, as I accidently told him I was a film (eiga) teacher not an English (eigo) teacher!  I quickly corrected my mistake this time but I’m sure I make similar mistakes everyday and don’t realise it!ImageAfter a lakeside coffee, I took Zoya’s direction to drive around a coastal peninsular which was not on the tourist map.  Willingly, I took the 15 km winding road around the rocky hillside.  Within five minutes of the route I saw a dog on a roof of a traditional house.  ‘What is a dog doing on the roof!’ I thought to myself, before I realised that it was a monkey!  Along this road we came across a whole troop of monkeys in the trees above us and sitting by the roadside.  We pulled up and watched in awe at wildlife I’d only ever seen that close in a zoo.

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Whilst we were watching as the young monkeys played in the trees, my eye caught sight of a bigger creature moving in the forest.  It was a full grown shika stag peering through the trees at us.  We could only see its neck as it was such a steep-sided hillside and I was almost worried it may fall on us. It had a dark, shaggy coat and full length antlers.  This you’ll have to believe, as when I reached for my camera it turned sharply and went back in to the dense forest.  This rare glimpse of the abundance of wildlife in the forests here just adds to the sharp division of built up cities bordered by thickly covered mountains where humans do not venture.  Miyazaki films, such as Princess Mononoko offer a magical portrayal of of animals in the forests being like spirits.

After this excitement we continued driving to the end of Tsunegami peninsular.  We passed fishing villages where freshly caught squid and fish were hanging from clothes, pegs guarded by a small o-baachan (grandmothers) sat outside their houses.  We’d hear the term ‘gaijin’ being said with surprise as they see our long noses, light hair and Zoya’s blue eyes.  Yet the fishermen were too engrossed in their catch to notice us though.

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For lunch, Zoya had found a secluded cafe in the coffee-bible of Fukui-ken magazine.  We worked out the location and headed south to find the little know café which promised us stone-cooked pizza.  When we arrived it was too late for pizza but the five retired ladies which ran the rustic café cooked us up the lunchi setto for a mere 500 yen.  The ladies were dressed in beautiful tie dye aprons and were curious about our whereabouts.  They’d seen the Fukui-ken number plate on my car and asked us where we lived and what we did.  This time I told them straight my job and they praised my broken Japanese as jouzo, even though I can hardly string a sentence together!

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We left, fed and fulfilled and headed back home.

Sunday

I was eager not to waste a single day of the beautiful season which is autumn.  I woke to a sunny morning and for the first time saw snow-capped mountains far in the distance.  ‘Zoya, let’s go somewhere!’.  ‘Oki’ her message read and we packed our bags ready for another road trip.  ‘I need breakfast and coffee this morning,’ said Zoya as she climbed in the front seat.  Now if Zoya hadn’t had her morning coffee, this was a more pressing issue!  So out comes the coffee-bible and low-and-behold she finds a Scandinavian bakery on the way we are headed!  I couldn’t believe there would be such a thing in our prefectural city, but there was and we enjoyed cheesecake, coffee and Scandinavian décor for breakfast.

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Then, we were back on-route to the Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama. It was built 10 years ago, after many dinosaur fossils had been found there,  and it was designed in the shape of a dinosaur egg, so it is easily visible from afar.  For 500 yen we enjoyed giant robotic t-rexs and walking-with-dinosaurs type graphics.  Less exciting, but still fascinating, were exhibitions of nearly complete dinosaur fossils from Japan, China and America.  When you walk out of the egg-shaped building into the fresh air and see the surrounding mountains, it is easy to imagine that dinosaurs roamed this area millions of years ago.

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Our next stop was Echizen daibutsu or ‘giant Buddha’. The 17 meter high Buddha is the tallest in Japan and is an impressive man-made feat.  But from what I know about Buddhism is not about being in awe of a massive statue so I’m not entirely sure if it’s main purpose was to inspire worshippers or something else.  I read that the Buddha was built twenty years ago from money given by a rich businessman who wanted to be thankful of his fortune in business.  However grand new places of worship are, they can never make up for the slowly moulded and worn down floors of old temples, churches or mosques.  Compared to the nearby Eiheji temple where Zen Buddhist monks still live a life of silence and solitude, this place was an amusement ground. Yet still the surrounding area was inspiring and the five-story pagoda gave a great view of the valley.

The valley of Katsuyama was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.  The sky was blue, the leaves of the trees were golden in the sunlight and the mountains in the distance looked a deep mahogany colour.  There were no sounds apart from children laughing whilst feeding koi fish in the pond.  It was then that I realised that Japan is going to change me.  I know that compared to the simply beauty of the leaves changing colour here and a thousand other differences, other places will seem dull and boring.  It was then that I decided that I’ll stay in Japan for another year.

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