Whether parading ‘drunk’ horses through downtown Kumamoto City or parading gigantic wooden phallises through the street, there is no denying that Japan has some interesting festivals.
In rural Kumamoto, the small town of Kagami has its own small festival every year in April. While the official name is ‘鏡が池鮒取り神事’, it’s known colloquially to the ALTs in the area as the Kagami Mud Festival.
As with other festivals and celebrations I’ve been to in Japan, I’m sure the mud festival has an ancient meaning or significance, but I am not completely privvy to it. All I knew was that there is mud. And it is thrown.
We gathered in Kagami on a colder-than-usual April afternoon. Walking past a shrine with an enormous tree, we made our way to the area where the festivities were taking place. The road beyond the shrine opens up into a small plaza of sorts that leads to a park across the river. Across a large hill is a bridge that overlooks a medium-sized manmade pond that rests in the middle of the plaza.
Children and some adults were loitering around the perimeter of the pond, excitedly talking with their friends or playing tag. Photographers dressed in heavy-duty rain ponchos were prowling around looking for the perfect spot to set up. On the hill we could see dozens of families waiting expectantly – lining the bridge like birds on a telephone line. They were at a safe distance from the madness that would soon ensue.
After watching a formal parade where children (and a horse!) carried a mikoshi (portable shrine) to pay their respects, the fun part began.
Suddenly, we heard the sound of several people chanting. Faint at first, the sound slowly grew louder and louder until the air around us was abuzz with excitement. The source of the noise soon revealed itself – a huge crowd of men dressed in fundoshi (Japanese loincloths) were marching up the street toward us. It was clearly obvious that they were drunk; aside from the fact they were actually half-marching and half-stumbling, the stench of cheap sake and beer radiated from them in a two kilometer radius.
As we watched the group of men inch closer and closer to the area like a drunken amoeba, people began to cheer and clap. The men came to a halt – as if they were stopped behind an invisible line – and continued to chant excitedly. I saw that one incredibly drunken man was being carried by two others.
Stamping their feet wildly, the group of semi-naked, drunk men chanted wildly for another minute or so before the loud bakuchiku (the firework that starts events) was shot into the air. As the deafening boom and subsequent crack-ak-ak! of the firework echoed through theair, the chanting turned into wild screaming and the men all rushed forward into the pond.
The spectators cheered excitedly as the men screamed and splashed through the shallow water. Immediately, they plunged their hands below the surface as if they were searching for something. Suddenly, one man took something in his hands and flung it through the air. It landed with a wet smack on the ground close to us and immediately began flopping about wildly. It was a fish.
Apparently, the pond had been stocked beforehand with several carp of varying sizes. The object of this particular celebration was for the men to catch the carp barehanded and throw them out of the pond. While I’m not a member of PETA by any means, this was still a bit hard to watch.
No sooner had the fish crash-landed in front of us then a giggling child swooped in and grabbed it expertly. She brought it (still thrashing helplessly) over to a boy and deposited it into a plastic grocery bag that he was holding. Together, I watched them run off to collect the other fishes that were now littering the perimeter.
By this point, the shivering men in the lake had begun taking clumps of mud and hurling them into the onlooking crowds. They would take aim at people (especially children) and sling it at them full force. A few launched handfuls through the air, causing the mud to spread out in a filthy arc – effectively splattering a range of people, (and cars…and houses…) who were in its path.
The children waiting around the pond squealed in delight as they were hit by the mud and even began throwing it back at the men. Other children rushed around with more plastic shopping bags to collect the growing number of fish that had been ripped from their temporary home in the pond.
Eventually, the drunken, naked Japanese men began climbing out of the water with massive handfuls of gunky mud. It was like watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead as they began chasing children and adults alike. Commotion erupted as unlucky bystanders were pelted with thick, runny mud. One poor child in particular got it slathered all over his head.
The scene was, in a word, chaos. Fish were still flying through the air. Mud was being hurled in all directions and even the bystanders who had been a safe distance away were now being hit by it. Laughter and shrieks and drunken shouts of excitement filled the air as more and more men stumbled out of the pond. My friends and I scattered and regrouped multiple times, but it seemed nowhere was safe.
Within minutes, nearly everyone who was standing remotely close to the lake had some kind of mud on them. The men were becoming more bold in their exodus from the pond and were actively chasing people. A mud-smeared, wet man stumbled over to my friend Javier, his fundoshi soaked and droopy, and grabbed a hold of his cheeks playfully.
“IYEEEEEEIIIIIII” he screamed joyously as if he were talking to a child who had just taken their first steps. “IYEIIII IYEIII IYEIIII” he sang as he smeared mud rhythmically from Javier’s cheeks to his chin and then back again.
He then caught sight of me laughing at my friend. “Eyyyyyyy” he slurred and stumble-ran toward me.
The man stopped suddenly and looked me square in the eyes – his dark, glazed-over eyes trying their best to focus on mine. It was almost as if he were peering into my soul.
‘You want to get dirtyyyy’ his inner voice seemed to speak to me. I felt like I was underneath the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. ‘You don’t mind getting dirty…but you don’t want to get too dirtyyyy hmmm’.
Then, as soon as it started, the surreal moment ended and he snapped back to reality. His hands shot out quickly and he pressed his fingers to my cheekbones. With a cute “Ey!” he smudged mud on them so I sort of resembled a cat. Obviously pleased with his work, the man then grabbed my hand in a vigorous, muddy double-handed shake.
With that, he skipped away to rejoin the other men who were still falling all over one another trying to catch fish.
Before too long, the bakuchiku sounded again – signaling an end to the mayhem. The men all climbed out of the water and the bags of fish were collected and taken to be blessed, grilled and then eaten (in that order).
As it wound down, a woman walked up to me and thrust a large greenish-yellow fish into my hands. “Check this out!” she said to me with an excited smile plastered on her face. “Isn’t this great?”
Have you ever held a clammy, writhing fish in your hands? Let me tell you it is not the best feeling in the world. She wanted me to keep it but I declined as politely as I could. She shrugged and chucked the fish back into her grocery bag.
The exact reason for this festival still eludes me, but I believe it has something to do with pleasing a god of some sort with fish? It is said that if you get hit with mud, you are to have a year of good health.
Whether you get muddy or not, this festival is just one of the many strange and fun events that seem to happen in rural Kyushu. For those who can read Japanese, here is a link to the event with a much better explanation than mine!
And for the record, I haven’t been sick yet this year!
Fellow readers, what is the craziest festival or event that you’ve been to? It doesn’t matter if it’s in a foreign country or not!