There are several local festivals linked to Itsukushima’s annual Kangensai rituals. One of these is the Kirikushi Okagensan festival. Kirikushi is a small port in the northern coast of Etajima Island. Just beyond the port which serves the ferry that runs to and from Hiroshima is the small Nagatani River, flanked by high walls and lined with houses, that runs down to the coast from Mt. Furutaka-yama.
For over 40 years, usually, but not always, a week or so before the Miyajima Kangensai, people in Kirikushi have small set small boats made from barley stalks on this river. The boats range in size from about 50cm up to about 2.5m. They are brightly decorated, often on a theme close to the heart of the maker, and all carry a lantern with a candle inside, which is lit after dark. A mini torii shrine gate represents Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine and, most importantly, wishes are written on colored streamers attached to the boats.
The story goes that the event was started to allow kids who couldn’t go to the Kangensai to feel like they were part of it. It was said that if your boat made it all the way to Miyajima, your wish would come true. I don’t know if they used to actually let the boats go out to sea, but these days, they are held in place by ropes and taken home after the event ends.
As a way of encouraging community spirit, kids are involved in every stage of the build up to the festival, from sowing, tending and harvesting the barley seeds to building the boats with the help of family and friends at a big get together. You can see photos of the process, along with pictures from the event on the festival’s Facebook Page.
For festival day, a stage is erected over the river on which various community groups perform music and dances, lanterns are set up along the riverside. From late afternoon, people start to congregate, bringing their boats with them to be set on the river. As the sun goes down, the lanterns come on and the candles on the boats are lit. It is a very picturesque sight.
Okangensan is all about community and it is very much a local affair. I went to check out the festival in 2016 and, I have to say, it was one of the few times in my 20 years of living in Hiroshima that I felt *really* out of place. I never felt unwelcome, just invisible. A little nervous, I looked around for a place to buy some “Dutch courage”. Beer is generally ubiquitous at summer festivals, but I could find any here. There was a curry stall and a shaved ice stall, but no beer. It was clear that most of the adults were imbibing, as many of the young men tasked with tying up the boats and lighting the candles were looking increasingly unsteady in the shallow water. Then I noticed that there was plenty of beer, but it was in everyone’s refrigerators. I’d occasionally see someone passing a can, or 6, over the wall of a house overlooking the river. I kind of hoped that someone might take pity on me and offer me something to help loosen me up a bit, but to no avail.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that anyone at their own community festival is obliged to bend over backwards to welcome and entertain an outsider. I know very well that it’s often up to the outsider to make an effort at these kinds of festivals. I’m not known for my overly smiley demeanor, but I just couldn’t seem to find an opening to start a conversation, or even to make eye contact with anyone. An over enthusiastic welcome and lots of attention at a Japanese festival can, at times, be uncomfortable for the non-Japanese visitor, but this was equally uncomfortable. There was no ignoring it, I really was a tourist.
That said, it was a lovely sight and on this night, the festival coincided with the Hiroshima Port Dream Fireworks Festival held over the water at Ujina which is directly opposite Kirikushi. I had a fantastic view of the first blasts from the festival site and the ferry back to Hiroshima, stopped in the middle of Hiroshima Bay to allow the passengers (many of them Etajima residents just doing the out-and-back journey to view the fireworks).
If I were to make a return visit to Kirikushi Okangensan, I would take my kids along to help with some ice-breaking. And beer, I’d take lots of beer.
Click here for details about the Kirikushi Kangensan Festival