Location: Ise, Mie Prefecture
Festival and Venue: Kannamesai Festival at Ise Shrine. Other festival-related activities took place at the Shuuyoudan Cultural Center in Ise, Mie Prefecture.
Duration: 3 days, 2 nights. October 15-17, 2011
Important things learned on this trip: The role rice plays in traditional and contemporary Japanese culture; Japanese festival etiquette; How to wear a happi coat
Impressions of the Journey:
From October 15-17, 2011, we were invited to accompany friends from the Matsushita Institute to join new friends from across Japan in Ise, Mie prefecture, for the annual Kannamesai Festival (Festival of New Rice) at Ise Grand Shrine. The Kannamesai Festival is the annual harvest festival of the Ise Grand Shrine, one of Japan`s holiest Shinto sites. The festival itself involved making offerings of the year`s first harvest of rice and other crops to Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess.
The weekend was action packed, punctuated by a ceremony called “hatsuho hiki”, which involved pulling the year’s first rice harvest down the Ise River to the Ise Grand Shrine, which is not as straightforward as it might sound. An elaborate boat made of cedar wood was loaded with offerings, including rice and sake (rice wine). The boat was launched into the waters of the Ise River. Dressed in bandanas and white smocks called happi, about one undred enthusiastic, happi-clad participants entered the waist-deep water and found handholds along two heavy, straw ropes connected to the front of the boat. For about three hours, singing traditional songs and pausiong for water fights, holy rope tug-o-war, and assorted horseplay, we pulled the offering-laden boat (and an occasional tipsy participant) by the rope through the chilly, sometimes rushing, water.
Impressions of the Festival and its Significance:
As Kannamesai celebrates the year`s new rice, we ate rice with every meal and had several discussions about the importance of rice in Japanese culture. After the events had ended and we were reflecting on the weekend with a small group of fellow participants and new friends, the friend who invited us to join the festival said the following to us:
“Kannamesai is something that very few Japanese people, and even fewer foreigners, have a chance to see. I know that a lot of foreigners think the Japanese have a very rigid way of thinking about agriculture, particularly rice and rice farming, but maybe after this weekend you can understand why that is. Rice isn`t just something we eat. It is who we are.”
On the way home, I reflected on these comments, and thought about the ways in which this attitude has influenced Japan’s opposition to importing foreign rice. It might explain why Japanese consumers are willing to pay so much money for domestically produced rice. At present, Japanese consumers spend over 1% of their annual income paying just the price difference between Japanese rice and rice produced abroad. Since the 1960s the percentage of households that earn more than half their income from non-farm employment has approximately doubled. In the past half century, the percentage of farmers over 65 years old rose from 10% to 60%, and the Japanese per capita rice consumption dropped by as much as 50%. Fewer farming households, rising prices, and aging farmers clearly paints a rather unsustainable portrait of Japanese professional agriculture, especially if one considers the country’s shrinking population and rapid rural to urban migration. But is that the whole picture? Part of my motivation for continuing this project is to find out whether the tapestry of Japanese agriculture is a much more complex and forward-looking one.
The group leaders at the Shuuyoudan cultural center spent a lot of time talking to us about the importance of preserving Japanese traditions and culture throughout one’s daily actions and interactions. They especially focused on giving thanks to one’s ancestors and community for everything that contributed to making one’s life possible. Thus, the kanji we learned on this trip that captures the feeling of this experience is one that means “mortal life”… 命–inochi