Umibiraki — drunk fish, a certain charm


On the first Sunday of July for hundreds of years now, a priest has performed a Shinto ceremony called umibiraki on Shiraishi Island. At this “opening-of-the-sea” ceremony, the priest blesses the sea making it safe for swimming.

Sort of. We prayed last year at this ceremony and got typhoons. We prayed the year before and got rain every weekend. We prayed the year before that and the sea was overrun with giant stinging jellyfish. The ceremony may make the sea safe for swimming but for who? People aren’t the only ones that swim. Fish swim. Octopus swim. Jellyfish swim. I’m beginning to think this ceremony is for them.

It was a dismal, cold, rainy day and we all sat in chairs facing the sea while the priest performed the rites of the ceremony in front of us. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why are we opening the sea anyway? Like Moses parted the Red Sea, perhaps the priest opens the Inland Sea? And even Moses only did it once. Not every year for hundreds of years. Does the sea really need to be opened? Is the priest like some spiritual can opener?

The islanders who attend this ceremony are few in these modern times — just the people who make a living from tourism and the beach. The local bar/restaurant owner was there, someone representing the local minshuku was there. I was there representing the Moooo! Bar on the beach. A fisherman was there and the grocer (not sure why), and of course, the priest.

With candles lit, a sacrificed fish lying on a plate, and offerings of kagami mochi and some fruit and veggies, the priest started the ceremony. He rubbed a stick across a small bronze bowl. He shook his staff. Then he walked forward with a large bottle of sake. He bowed to the sea, then bowed to the south, and bowed to the north. Then he poured sake into the sea, one pour to the west, one pour to the south, and one pour to the north. With that much sake going into the sea, I was convinced the ceremony was for the fish.

But as I sat there and the priest began to chant, I was lulled back to my senses. This is Japan, after all. This was tradition. This is what Japanese people mean when they say “Japanese people love nature.” It’s not a denial of pollution, concrete or carbon monoxide, but rather a respect for the power of nature: its beauty as well as its destructibility. After all, when was the last time you sat and took 30 minutes to chant and get in touch with the powers of the sea?

Despite the dreary, rainy day on land, the Inland Sea was using these same elements to create its alluring charm. Fishing boats trolled romantically through the mist and cargo ships sounded their fog horns as they plied the waters past the Shiraishi lighthouse. Behind the mist, the mountains rose up out of the sea, creating a basin in which we sat, protected by mountain walls. As the priest chanted on, the sounds filled the air creating background music to complete the scene — the opening of the sea.

At the end of the ceremony, we all joined in omeeki a ceremonial toast of sake to the gods, opened a beer and ate the offerings.

The opening of the sea — indeed! We should do it more often.