Saturday, October 17, 2009

Treasure Ball ritual on Miyajima

The gent with the ball is now Man of the Year. Lucky man!

Japan is an island nation and Hiroshima is right on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, but sometimes it's easy to forget that when you're constantly surrounded by buildings and traffic. Japan is not exactly famous for beautiful beaches since a good bit of the coastline is buried in concrete (oh how the Japanese love concrete — good for erosion control, I assume). There are supposed to be a number of decent beaches around the Seto Inland Sea, though, and after realizing this past summer that I'd somehow managed to live in Hiroshima for two years without ever going to a beach (nearby, at least), I made a point to visit one before the official end of the beach season at the end of August.

Coincidentally, on August 22 Miyajima was supposed to have a wacky-sounding ritual involving scantily clad men in fundoshi (loin cloths). Well. You can't pass that up, so that cinched it. I decided to head to Miyajima to witness the Tamatori-sai (Treasure Ball Festival) and hit the beach.

The Tamatori-sai involves the placement of a wooden frame in the sea in front of Miyajima's famous "floating" torii gate. Suspended from a rope in the middle of this frame is a small platform holding a sacred wooden ball placed there by the priests of Itsukushima Shrine. The platform is actually hooked up to a kind of pulley system running to shore so that the priests can pull the rope to move the platform up and down. During this ceremony, a bunch of Japanese guys swim over to the tower and scramble to capture this sacred ball. The man who finally manages to grab hold of the moving platform and haul himself aboard to get the ball is considered to have good luck for the following year. I'm not sure why they do this or what the history of this ritual is, but it's apparently been going on for 400 years and it looks like a lot of fun.

The pictures I'd seen of this event showed lots of Japanese guys in fundoshi, but in reality there were only a couple old guys wearing them. Everyone else was in swim trunks. Boo! I bet they didn't have swim trunks 400 years ago! Oh well, no Japanese butts for me.

It took around half an hour before one lucky guy finally captured the sacred ball, and there were quite a lot of entertaining gymnastics performed in the process. Actually, to me it looked like the gymnastics that students perform on Sports Day were probably pretty good preparation for this physical challenge. Same human pyramids, but with the added element of water.

Here's a video clip of the end to give you an idea what it looked like. I'm not sure if I might have inadvertently spliced in the drumming in the background to this video, but I'd already erased the original footage off my camera and wasn't sure how to fix it. But it's not bad background music anyway.

I really love Japanese taiko drumming performances. It's like you can feel the energy of these big drums flow through you. There was a troupe there doing performances in the time leading up to the ceremony, and they were really good!

Here's a video clip of one of their performances.

Once all the excitement was over, I grabbed some lunch and rented a bicycle to ride around to Tsutsumigaura Beach, on the other side of the island.

The beach area had some decent facilities, though the beach itself was just so-so. It was around half a mile long, but the sand wasn't very fine and felt rather rough on the feet.

It was a hot day and I was looking forward to wading in until I saw some little kids with their mom, freaking out and pointing at some jellyfish washing up on shore. As I walked along the waterline I saw several jellyfish. There were plenty of people swimming, which made me wonder if the jellyfish were harmless, but... I've never heard of harmless jellyfish. So I decided to stay out of the water rather than risk it. Maybe next summer I'll try a different island, different beach.

1 comment:

Joshua Zimmerman said...

The jellyfish were probably harmless. Every time I saw one while diving in Japan, I always if it was dangerous. The response was always that it wasn't. I'm sure if they were dangerous someone would put up a sign for legal reasons. Just stay away from any jellyfish bigger than a beachball.