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Fire, water, and whiskey: three days in Kyoto

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
9 min read
Fire, water, and whiskey: three days in Kyoto

Whenever you go to Japan, you should always check and see if there will be a festival where you are. I don’t mean the major holidays—golden week, and so on. I mean the niche festivals—or matsuri, as they’re called. The more obscure, the better. Some little shrine holds a yearly dance-off? I’ll be there. It’s time for the firefly-watching festival? Sign me up.

Occasionally, the festival dates run up against each other, where night after night you can enjoy colourful yukata, endless rows of stalls selling delicious treats, and maybe even a cold beer or two. If you’re headed to Kyoto, I recommend this excellent event calendar by Discover Kyoto.

Japan’s festivals are one of the greatest places to see old traditions brushing up against modern ones—shrine maidens taking selfies, tv camera people walking across fiery coals to get the best view of the action, traditional dancers taking breaks to grab a mouthful of Pocari Sweat. Nothing is sacred, and everything is.

When my friend Anne and I headed to Kyoto after living and working on Obubu Tea Farms in rural Japan for several months, we were ready to party, imbibe, let loose. I’d had a tv person following me for two weeks straight stalking my every move for a Japanese variety show I’d somehow fallen into participating in, which had been an interesting but often exhausting experience.

Anne’s 30th birthday was the perfect excuse to enjoy all Kyoto had to offer and chill out, unobserved, before heading back to our home countries of Canada and Germany, respectively.

So Anne was turning 30 and we’d found these festivals happening one after another right over her birthday weekend. I mean, obviously, we had to go.


Mitarashi-sai, the water purification festival

Let me tell you something about this summer in Kyoto: It was hot. The hottest summer in 72 years, in fact. So you can bet I was excited about any festival that wanted me to jump into an ice-cold river.

The Mitarashi Festival is held every year at the end of July at the Shimogamo Shrine. Essentially, you walk into a river and under a bridge up to the Mitarai-sha smaller shrine within Shimogamo to pray for good health.

Mitarashi has a few different meanings. It can be the purifying water placed at the entrance of a shrine (御手洗). It can be a river in which you rinse your hands and mouth before entering a shrine (御手洗川). Or it can be rice dumplings covered in a sweet soy sauce glaze (みたらし団子). More on those, later.

Walking into the temple, we followed a line of people, paid ¥200 (about $2) to receive a thin, white candle, were given a bag to hold our shoes, and then walked barefoot into the blessed, ice cold water. You pass under a small, arched bridge, heading in the water towards Mitarai-sha.

Like most festivities in Japan—don’t expect to do anything quickly. You’ll wade along with the crowd. Take the time to reflect, do some thinking, take pictures. Celebrate however you like. Some people take selfies with their best friends, some people nod their head in silent contemplation. There’s a spectrum - get on where you choose, and do religion however you do you.

I learned later that the water comes from an underground spring, and that’s why it was so clear and cool, even with the unnaturally hot weather. At the end of the river, before getting out there’s a rack where you can place your candle and say a prayer. Then you can exit the water and get in line to receive some of the spring water to drink. Past the water, there is the typical shrine good luck charms for sale. Some of them are foot-themed, as walking through the purifying waters during this festival is supposed to be especially good for your leg and foot health.

Exploring Shimogamo shrine

Just because you’ve waded through the waters, doesn’t mean you’re done celebrating. Next comes exploring the shrine. Shrines, by the way, are from the Shinto religion, and temples are Buddhist. Japan has both, so if you were confused - that should clear it up.

Shimogamo shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. It’s one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, which together are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Around the beautiful shrine grounds, you’ll see corridors of makeshift stalls, selling festival foods in the glow of electric lights.

Festival foods to try in Japan

This merits a detour into one of my favourite things about Japanese festivals—the snacks. The sticky, sweet, starchy snacks. They’re delicious, and I will never not love them.

Mitarashi dango is the must-try for the Mitarashi Festival, of course. Dango are dumplings made from rice flour. In this case, they’re skewered onto bamboo sticks on groups of 3-5 and smothered in a sweet soy glaze.

Taiyaki, one of Japan’s best street foods, usually filled with red bean paste, or custard.

Takoyaki are my tiny octopus friends—chopped up and served in cooked balls of savoury pancake batter. Usually, served covered in a criss-cross of Kewpie mayonnaise and the iconic, dark takoyaki sauce. It’s kind of like a saucier, salty, soy version of Worcestershire sauce if that makes any sense. Sprinkle with dried bonito flakes and a bit of aonori seaweed, and you’re good to go. The insides of these octopus balls can be a sweet, sizzling hell for your tongue if they’ve just come off the grill, so proceed with caution. Needless to say, they go great with beer.

Taiyaki were my first love when it came to Japanese festival foods. When I lived in Yamaguchi as an exchange student, I would bike 20 minutes to this little mom n’ pop bakery in the nearby covered mall that had them. Taiyaki literally means ‘baked sea bream,’ since these waffle-like pastries come in the shape of a sea bream, or tai, fish. Don’t be fooled though, these snacks are sweet, not savoury. The most traditional filling for them is red bean paste from sweetened azuki beans. Me though? I go for the custard ones. That sweet, runny, yellow custard can also be blazing hot when the cake comes off the iron mould, so beware.


Touring the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Kyoto

Some purification comes in the form of festivals. But on this day, we were seeking another kind of purified water.

They say Yamazaki is where Japanese whiskey was born.

As a tea lover, I was also keen to see the legendary ‘Rikyu no Mizu’ water of the imperial villa that is allegedly some of Japan’s best mineral water, bubbling forth from its hallowed grounds still today.

At first, I thought it might be just marketing hype, but after tasting their water I’ve gotta say—damn Daniel, their water was some of the best I’ve ever had.

Either that or water just tastes better after trying some of the world’s best whiskey.

Who can say?

On a side note, the reason we had actually come to the Oyamazaki neighbourhood was to visit Tai-an, the only original teahouse left in existence that was designed by Sen no Rikyu—basically the granddaddy of Japanese tea. It’s located at Myōkian temple down the road from the distillery and is basically a national treasure. Like, so sacred we weren’t allowed to take photos while we were there. But also, so niche that the tour was only available in Japanese, and I did my best to survive and translate for the both of us.

On a side side note—I got word last month that I passed my JLPT 5 Japanese exam! Go me!

There was only one overtly strange thing about the Yamazaki Distillery Tour (and that’s saying something, in Japan), and that’s that you can’t buy their whiskey at the museum. I mean, what? That’s like the whole upsell of the factory tour in North America - see my place, now buy my wares.

One of the Yamazaki distillery museum staff recommended if I want to buy some, I try the duty-free section at the airport. When I looked back in response with my head cocked and brows furrowed in confusion, she politely smiled and said, “Would you like me to say again in English?”

Allegedly, the whiskey is so popular that it sells out in the country and is more easily available internationally. I found it all strange, but by that point, I was also pretty easy-going and willing to accept whatever they told me.

Suntory’s most famous whiskeys - the Hibiki 21, and Yamazaki 12. I like whisky. I don’t know as much about it as I do about tea, but it’s my favourite spirit.

If you’d like a tour of the museum, just be sure to register to advance. You can book a tour on their website, here.


Hiwatari matsuri, the Fire Walking Festival

When Anne first looked at me with a sparkled in her eye and the words, “firewalking festival” in her mouth. I’m not gonna lie - I was kind of scared. I mean, a logical part of me knew that people do this all the time, and so it must be relatively safe if they let anyone participate, but holy eff I was also thinking about how inconvenient and painful it would be to burn the soles of my feet off.

So I was two minds about it, you know?

Tanukidani-san Fudo-in temple is nestled partway up a mountain in northeast Kyoto. Remember my lesson from earlier? Shrines are Shinto and temples are Buddhist? Mitarashi-sai was Shinto time, but now we were climbing the mountain through the suburbs and into the woods to a Buddhist sect. Except, Fudo-in temple is kind of unique. The monks of Fudo-in follow the nature-worship path of Shugendo, which is a sort of mountain-dwelling, ascetic lifestyle that combines Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist beliefs.

The practitioners of Japanese mountain asceticism have been honing their practice for 1,400 years, and are known as yamabushi, mountain-wandering warrior monks. Which I thought had such an air of mystery and the chill of a night air about it, until the girl in front of us at the firewalking ceremony said, ‘Oh yeah, my grandma was a yamabushi!’ Which suddenly made the whole topic much more approachable.

Shugendo can be translated as "the way to spiritual power through discipline,” or, “the path of training and testing.”

So yeah, of course, these hardcore monks put on a firewalking ceremony every year.

After climbing up to the temple, I thought we might finally escape the sweltering city into the cool mountain air… except, well, there were fires lit everywhere and it was hot.

The Fire Walking Festival, or Hiwatari Matsuri, is associated with Shugendō and Fudō Myō'ō worship. Pinewood prayer sticks are assembled into a pyre, burned, and the flaming ashes and coals are then raked flat for participants to walk across.

While you’re walking across, the Yamabushi chant a sutra. Shugenja, the followers of Shugendo, first walk barefoot across the hot ground, before helping members of the public who want to participate do the same.

Tanukidani-san Fudo-in existing as a cave with a statue for centuries, before the actual temple was built in 1944. It is said that the legendary swordsman Musashi came here to train in the 1600s. You can even see the waterfall he’s said to have trained under.

FYI, I did walk across the flames. There are no pictures. There's literally a sign before you enter the burning grounds letting you know that this time is for prayer, and not for pictures. And you know what? I'm cool with that. I loved the night. The pine smoke, the rain that came after. It felt great.

When you get ready to enter a monk hands you a blessing written on red paper. Then you wait at the start of the tract of burning ground. When the person ahead of you has gone far enough, the monk puts his two hands on your shoulders, and pushes you out into the flames. It didn't hurt, but it was exhilarating.

Plus, of course, Anne turned 30. With candles and a bowl of ramen, as it should be.

What to wear for Japanese festivals

This is a yukata! They're colourful and fun to wear for summer festivals.

If you want, feel free to wear yukata, a light summer kimono made of cotton. They’re fun and colourful. Some modern stores like Uniqlo even sell them. Or, just wear your normal clothes. Don’t worry about blending in - some Japanese people wear yukata, and some wear whatever they wore to work that day. It’s really up to you, and there’s no judgment. Just enjoy the festival!