In Japan, shrines hold various festivals throughout the year, but some of them may seem a little peculiar. One example of this is the Shiohi-sai held every year on April 3 at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Hakata Ward. Shiohi means low tide, and the festival is held to pray for bountiful fish harvests and the safety of fishermen, but Sumiyoshi Shrine is nowhere near the coast. So, why is this festival held here?
Long ago, a deep arm of Hakata Bay stretched inland and Sumiyoshi Shrine was actually located next to the sea. For this reason, the shrine was home to the guardian deity of sea voyages. Back then, the Shiohi-sai consisted of loading a portable shrine on a boat at Sumiyoshi Shrine and sailing it to another shrine on Cape Aratsu (now Nishi Park). Because this route is now connected by land, parishioners dress in old garb and parade a portable shrine over land.
Another shrine that has been home to a guardian deity for sea voyages since olden times is Shikanoshima Shrine on Shikanoshima in Higashi Ward, which is said to have been built by the ancient seafaring Azumi people of the Jomon era. Every year, on April 15 and November 15, a festival called the Yamahome-sai is held at Shikanoshima Shrine. Originally, people would pay their respects to the mountains and pray for bountiful hunting and fishing for the year.
Technically, the festival is actually two festivals: one in the spring to pray for bountiful crops and fishing and one in the fall to give thanks for the year’s harvest from both the land and the sea. Some people may find it odd that a seaside shrine would hold a festival to pay respect to the mountains, but it is possible that the people of olden times realized even back then that treating the land properly would also keep the sea beautiful and bountiful. Tracing the history of these shrine festivals not only reveals surprising connections between the land and the sea, but it also sheds light on how these festivals came to be celebrated in the first place.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn255, Mar 2020)