The small town of Nankokushi lies east of Kōchi City, Shikoku Island. Nankokushi is famous for its centuries-old Enko Matsuri (mythological creature e.g. kappa, festival). This January the festival was recognized as a significant part of Japan’s intangible cultural heritage.
Enko Matsuri takes place the first Saturday of June. We went this year to witness the event and to find answers to our questions: What is the purpose of the festival? And why is it held the first Saturday of June? Finally, I hoped to learn more definitely: What are Kappa? We arrived at 1 p.m., June 4. The answers to our questions emerged over the course of the event and into the night.
Mr. Hamada, a retired elementary teacher, met us at a bridge over the Atogawa River where the Jike-gumi (Jike group) build their shrine. Hamada-san grew up here, just a few houses up the street; he still lives here today. This site is one of 12 traditional festival sites next to bridges over the Atogawa; 11 of these sites are still active. The Jike-gumi site is centrally located and the current focus of national attention, local media and the elementary school. A new Kappa statue and memorial stone were recently added to the site.
When we first arrived, a group of retired men were constructing the Kappa shrine and hanging dozens of Kappa pictures drawn by the elementary school kids (see Photos 1 and 2; individual drawings are online here). Hamada-san walked us to another site just upstream that had already been constructed (see Photo 3). A group of kids came by on bikes. They were very friendly and spoke a few words of English, but none of them had ever seen Kappa.
Kappa pictures from the local elementary school. You can see photos of each drawing at my Flickr album.
At a third site near the mouth of the river a group of men and boys were constructing a shrine together (Hamakubo-gumi, see Photo 4). Each shrine consists of a simple frame. The top, bottom, and three of the sides are lined with leaves of shoubu (Japanese sweet flag, Acorus gramineus), a reed-like plant. At this site, the boys placed the flooring into the shrine, while an older man helped a younger man cut the reeds to fit. Afterward, the boys were told to throw the cut and unused leaves into the water (see Photos 5, 6 and 7). My daughters, Marina and Ami were invited to help.
We returned to the Jike-gumi shrine just before dusk. Several kids were gathered around the shrine. A plate of pickled octopus and cucumbers, and a small bottle of sake had been placed inside the shrine (see Photo 8). Kids took turns at the shrine. They used the chopsticks to place a small portion of octopus and cucumber on their hand, ate it then made a short prayer. Afterward, the kids prayed as a group (see Photo 9).
Finally, the real fun began: fireworks! There were more than a dozen kids at the Jike-gumi shrine and many more adults: parents, grandparents, other retirees and local media. Fireworks were donated by local households and everyone was invited to join the festivities (see Photos 10 and 11).
We later visited two other sites. The Shimohama-gumi shrine was a small festival with only a handful of kids (see Photo 12). The Naka-gumi shrine was crowded with kids and adults. This shrine was filled with a large platter of octopus and cucumber, and a liter-size bottle of sake. The adults made repeated trips to the shrine for food and sake (something like cookies for Santa)? see Photos 13 and 14.
Despite the recent national attention to their festival, I was the first gai-jin (foreigner) to ever visit. The people were all friendly, and the photographers particularly liked to take pictures of Marina and Ami (see Photo 15). We were warmly welcomed back next year, with offers of a place to stay, and multiple cups of sake.
So: What is the purpose of Enko Matsuri? Why hold this festival the first Saturday in June? And what are Kappa?
When Hamada-san was a boy (1940’s) the Atogawa River was still an important source of water. He pointed out several sites along the river where women would bring their clothes to wash. It was also the best place for a summer swim. The festival was held at the start of summer, but before the rainy season, in time for kids to go swimming! The festival honored (and appeased) local Kappa, so the kids would be safe swimming that summer. Thirty kids used to participate at each of the shrines, and the kids built the shrines themselves (mostly).
Today, the riverbank has been built up, the shoubu that used to grow here are gone, and the water is no longer clean enough for swimming. The older generation maintains the festival, with relatively few kids participating.
Hamada-san said they believed in Kappa when he was a boy, but no one had ever seen one. They do not put a statue of Kappa inside their shrines, because no one really knows what they look like (other types of shrines in Japan typically include a statue or other image, e.g. Ebisu). Still, the kids created dozens of images that were presented at this year’s festival. My daughters asked the local kids if they had ever seen Kappa. Ami reported that the kids believed in Kappa, but none had seen one. Marina added that although none of the kids they asked had seen one, one of their friends thought he might have seen Kappa. We later thought we saw a turtle in the river, but it could have been something else . . . (see Photos 16 and 17)