Written by Vern Begg
About the Author:
When I moved to Japan in 2015, I was looking forward to all of the new experiences I would have. Those expectations have been blown away and I am still finding new adventures and delicious dishes to try for the first time as I travel around this incredible country.
The day I arrived in Owase, it was overcast and raining lightly. This area along the coast in Mie Prefecture is one of the wettest places in Japan, so the weather was not a surprise. It was also the rainy day w hen I visited, so I was prepared. To be honest, I like being in the countryside of Japan when it’s raining. The moisture makes the green hues of the lush mountain plant life extra vibrant.
After arriving at Owase Station on the Kisei Main Line, I walked about 10 minutes to Owase Shrine where my tour would start with an opportunity to participate in a unique drum-based prayer. It is believed that Owase Shrine has a history dating back to the year 700. This cannot be confirmed because most of the shrine’s ancient documents were washed away by tsunamis caused by the great earthquakes of Hoei (1707) and Ansei (1854). A strong oral tradition has kept the history and significance of the shrine from being lost in the past.
The shrine is located between Yakiyama-toge Pass and Magose-toge Pass, which are considered to be two of the more difficult passes on the Kumano-kodo. In times of ancient conflict, Owase Shrine was a vital base that connected the Ise and Kishu areas. It is said that many warlords would visit the shrine to pray for victory.
My tour guide, Yoko Umetani, was waiting for me with her umbrella in hand when I arrived. Yoko asked that I call her by her first name and I told her to do the same for me. Two other members of the local tourism association also joined us. They introduced themselves in the more traditional Japanese style as Morimoto-san and Higashi-san. With the introductions out of the way, we started the tour.
Before we entered the shrine, Yoko and Morimoto-san performed a simple purification ritual (“chozu” in Japanese). This ritual is done before entering because the shrine is considered sacred ground. Water basins for this purpose can be found at the entrance to all Shinto shrines.
Caption: The unpainted torii gate at the Owase Shrine entrance.
Caption: The priest was wearing ornate traditional clothing.
We were welcomed into the shrine by the priest and his assistant for the prayer. The priest was wearing the distinctive traditional vestments (“shozoku” in Japanese) of a Shinto priest and he looked impressive. The interior of the shrine itself was spectacular and the wood structure and details were a sight to behold. The priest started our visit with an explanation in Japanese about the shrine. My guides were kind enough to translate much of the explanation into English for me.
One of the key features of Owase Shrine is that it houses the largest of taikos, which are hollowed from Japanese zelkova. The massive traditional drum was gorgeous and I was very interested in seeing how it would be included in the prayer we were about to experience.
Following the ceremony, the priest’s assistant brought a tray into the prayer room that held a pitcher of sake and some drinking glasses. My guides explained that, in the Shinto religion, sake is believed to provide purification against evil spirits. I gladly accepted my glass and drank my sake.
At the beginning of February, Owase Shrine hosts the annual Ya Ya Matsuri, a festival that is considered to be one of the strangest in all of Japan. This unique festival is sometimes referred to as the Quarreling Festival in English. In the streets of Owase, large groups of men can be seen walking through the town while shaking and chanting the word “Ya Ya.” Participants also drink sake and some of them jump into the chilly waters of the sea. The last day of the festival features an all-day parade that leads the crowds to the shrine grounds to watch an archery ceremony involving archers from the surrounding area.