The end of April is one of the nicest times in Japan. Picture spending a couple of days on a small island in the Inland Sea, in the midst of a festival that involves traditional and modern dance, Shintō ritual, and pirate history.
The two-day Kashima Spring Festival is held during the second half of the Golden Week holiday in April. The location is the island of Kashima, a quick ferry ride from Hōjō to the north of Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture.
On the first day of the festival, the Kaineri Odori is held. Odori means “dance”, but since this is performed on rather small wooden boats lashed together, the scope for movement is limited. The performance recalls the heroics of the Iyo Suigun, the maritime clans operating on the Seto Inland Sea from the 12th Century. The boats are decorated with bamboo fronds and flags. While the boats are towed back forth, teenage boys balance precariously on sake barrels at the stern performing a ritual dance with oars, reenacting famous sea battles. Divine palanquins (o-mikoshi) are loaded onto two other boats and towed behind. The men who carry the palanquin rock the boats from side to side so that they gradually take on water. Some years they capsize in an accidentally-on-purpose sort of way, which is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The bedraggled and exhausted men must then right their boat, bail like crazy, and get their palanquin back to shore and into the shrine.
Much of this activity is very photogenic and photographers are everywhere. You can watch the festival from the shore at Hōjō or on Kashima, or get on one of the fishing boats which dock at Kashima Pier. Other attractions include traditional and modern arts on a stage in front of Kashima Shrine, and mochimaki, where bigwigs throw rice cakes and the plebes scramble to pick them up.
The next day’s events are equally interesting. In Kashima Port, local firemen braid a huge rope, 45 m long and 30 cm thick from rice straw and old fishing nets. This is the sacred rope (shimenawa) that will replace the rope hanging between the two small islands near Kashima. You can write a wish on a slip of paper and have it incorporated in the rope, absolutely guaranteeing that your wish will come true (conditions apply). The completed rope, which weighs about a tonne, is then transferred by boat to Kashima for a blessing at the shrine. This too is a very photogenic affair. Then the firemen take to boats to install the rope. Again, fishing boats come to pick up spectators. The trip out to the twin rocks is an exciting and dramatic experience, and the views are extraordinary. On the return trip, you’ll see just how fast Japanese fishing boats go.