Kuromatsu Festival in Shimane
Kuromatsu Festival 黒松祭り
Time once again for what has become my favorite matsuri, the summer festival at Kuromatsu on the Japan Sea coast of Shimane Prefecture. I like it because it is unusual, colorful, and the villagers expend a lot of effort to put it on. It also helps that almost no-one outside the village visits it.
The shrine in this small fishing village is unusual in that one part of it, the honden, where the kami sometimes resides, is 2 kilometers away on a small uninhabited island, and a flotilla of boats make a procession to the island and back to fetch the kami (gods).
On the white sandy beach facing the island a sacred space has been constructed. Two wooden torii are erected and the space cordoned off with freshly-cut bamboo and a rope from which hangs dozens of lanterns.
There are two braziers high in the air on posts, and within the sacred space two trolleys in the shape of boats that will hold the taiko drum. About a hundred meters offshore is a group of rocks on which has been placed two small pine trees with a bamboo crosspiece to make another torii.
A couple of hours before sunset, the young men of the village, led by the priest, carry the mikoshi (portable shrine) from the shrine to the little harbor where a boat is waiting for them. The boat is purpose-built and only used once a year for this job.
Watch a movie of the Kuromatsu Festival
The mikoshi, priest, men, and taiko drums are loaded on board and then towed out to sea by one of the fishing boats of the village. In the old days it would have been rowed out to the island - a much bigger job.
The drum and bells on board the mikoshi boat begin a rhythm that will continue until the early hours of the morning and the boat leaves the harbor and joins another dozen boats that have been milling around the entrance waiting.
There are another five 12-metre fishing boats, squid boats, and six small powered dinghies. Every boat has a "mast" of freshly-cut bamboo and is sporting large colorful flags. The men in the dinghies are wearing happi coats, and the men on the larger boats are dressed all in white.
All the boats fall in line behind the mikoshi boat and the convoy snakes around the headland to the sacred space on the beach where they circle the offshore rocks as an act of purification. Twice the procession circles in an anti-clockwise direction before heading out to the island, drums and bells keeping up the rhythm.
As with last year, the weather for the matsuri is kind. The sea is calm and purple as the tangerine sun sets and a pale yellow full moon inches above the land.
The island is reached and the mikoshi boat beaches itself in front of the torii that flanks the stone steps that go to the shrine on the top of the island. The priest and men carry the mikoshi up and the priest "transfers" the kami to the mikoshi and head back down to the boat which in the meantime has had all its lanterns lit. The small dinghies have had their lights, arranged in patterns to form kanji (Chinese characters), turned on too.
The kami is named Ichikishima-hime, and her most famous shrine is Itsukushima Jinja on Miyajima, near Hiroshima, but her original and home shrine is in Munakata, northern Kyushu.
The Munakata were a powerful clan who controlled the sea lanes between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula on behalf of the ruling Yamato Clan in prehistoric times and with her two sisters, known collectively as the Munakata Princesses, they are known as kami offering protection at sea, so shrines for them are common on the coast of Japan.
Nowadays she is also equated with Benzaiten. In the ancient myths, the three sisters were created in a "contest" between Amaterasu, commonly known as the Sun Goddess, and her brother Susano. Amaterasu took her brother's sword, chewed it up and spat out the three sisters.
Susano took his sisters' jewels, chewed them and spat out three boys, one of whom became the ancestor of the mythical first Emperor, Jimmu. All six children are claimed to be children of Amaterasu, with Susano barely getting a mention, but in the myth Susano "gives" the boys to his sister, and she gives the three girls to Susano, so technically they are his daughters.
Dusk has passed, and it is dark as the procession of boats comes closer to the village. The beach is lit up by lanterns and fires, and small firework rockets are shot off. Drifting out from the beach is the same rhythm being drummed as on the mikoshi boat, and the convoy repeats the purification by circumnavigating the offshore rocks twice counter-clockwise.
The mikoshi boat quickly enters the little harbor, immediately followed by all the other boats, and the mikoshi is taken off and carried the short distance back to the village. As the procession gets closer to the matsuri space on the beach, the villagers on the side of the road stop, face the mikoshi, and clasp their hands together. The old ladies faces especially beam - they are so happy to see the kami in the village again.
The drum and bells from the mikoshi boat are now set up next to the drum and bells already on the beach, and two sets of drummers play, and will continue to play through the night.
In any normal matsuri, now is the time that the mikoshi will be carried around the village, both so that the kami can "look over" the village, and also so the villagers can connect again with the village's protective deity. But here at Kuromatsu something strange happens.
Starting at one end of the sacred space, the men carry the mikoshi forwards toward the way out through the torii and on to the village, but after about 20 meters the men start to stagger, slow down, and move from side to side. They stop, back up, and begin again, but yet again the same thing happens.
It's as if a force is pushing back and checking their forward progress. For the rest of the night this carries on, and the mikoshi never leaves the sacred space. There is no-one in the village who can explain it, but this is the way it has been done for hundreds of years. The villagers sit on the beach all night and watch. A strange matsuri indeed.
Kuromatsu Festival takes place in late July usually on the third or fourth Saturday of the month. The nearest station is Kuromatsu Station near Gotsu on the JR San-in Line.
Books on Japanese Festivals