At least this year I knew my legs wouldn't hurt. Last year I had helped carry a 1500-pound portable shrine down 201 stone steps, and, being considerably taller than everyone else on the crew, had felt like I was carrying most of that weight myself. This year, I was just going to sit around and take pictures. The city of Shiogama, home to the oldest Shinto shrine in the north of Japan, has always been connected with the sea. The city's name derives in part from an ancient ritual of producing salt from sea-water, and even now the city is still primarily a fishing community (which means, among other things, great sushi). Every summer, the whole city comes out to see the Minato Matsuri (Port Festival), where the tutelary deities of the shrine are taken out in portable palanquins (omikoshi) and carried through the streets, onto boats and out into the harbor to pray for a good catch. I'd taken a very (maybe excessively) active part in that last year, though this year my brief was just to show some visiting foreigners around and explain what was going on. The Matsushima bay area around Shiogama is, as tradition has it, one of the three most beautiful coastal views in Japan, and we got to circle the bay's many pine-dotted islands as we went, following the dragon and phoenix boats containing the omikoshi. The ceremony lasts all day, and even includes some kagura - an ancient form of Japanese drama performed on some of the islands as the ships pass by.
Oftentimes you don't even get to find out about rituals of this kind, let alone participate so closely in them. That's the beauty of the north of Japan, though - here, you don't have to go very far off the beaten path to find traditions, ceremonies and culture that the rest of Japan seems to have forgotten about. Even if it does test your leg strength at times.
Robert Tuck JETAA 2003-5 Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture