Katae (written 片江 or かたえ) is a little neighborhood nestled into the northern coast of the Mihonoseki portion of the Shimane Peninsula. It’s so separated from everything else that it’s practically its own town, and when talking with the locals there, they speak of Matsue like it’s a big city that is totally unrelated to them. It seems that although they were politically integrated during the nationwide town and city mergers of 2005, there hasn’t been much of a cultural integration, or at least not much of an awareness of themselves as Matsue citizens.

The biggest claim fame this tiny neighborhood has is its early January festival, in which they engage in two New Year customs, Tontoyaki and Sumitsuke. Tontoyaki is the burning of New Years door decorations. In Katae’s tradition the families with boys and girls through about elementary school age display and burn different decorations accordingly, but the big show is for the girls’ decorations. Unfortunately, like many rural towns and neighborhoods of Japan they’ve had a declining population, so the amount of decorations had also significantly decreased from the time my friend’s family was putting out decorations for her. While there used to be four giant, streamered towers of special decorations following the early morning burning of the household decorations, the celebration is now down to two.

It’s hard to tell, but each of those bag-like things hanging from the poles was actually a very elaborate paper decoration.

The main draw takes place a little later, and that is the Sumitsuke. Literally, “ink-applying.” If that translation doesn’t make it clear, you’ll soon find out what it is if you show up to spectate. There are no mere spectators at this event.

This tradition has been going on here for over 250 years, and while it’s not the only one of its kind in Japan, some spectators came from as far away as Kobe to witness and participate. As the two omikoshi portable shrines parade up and down the main street between the houses and the ocean, they are surrounded by people walking around and offering free cups of sake and hearty helpings of fishy snacks to go along with it, and a truck drives by with free drinks in the back for people to share. These locals are on duty this year, while other years they get to stand around by the big dish of free tonjiru (very homemade-ish soup with pork broth) and watch and wait. And who are they waiting for, if not the men carrying the omikoshi or the people handing out free drinks and grilled fish sausage and dried squid?

The people are carry the event (not in quite as literal of a sense) are the people with hands covered in jet black ink. Wetting their fingers with sake, they smear the ink on people’s faces, everyone from tiny babies to the elderly to everyone in between. And everyone wants this—getting this ink on your face will ensure good health for the coming year!

I wore some old clothes I wouldn’t mind getting stained with ink, and checked it out with a friend and her 5-month-old. The festival is held on the second Sunday of January, and those there was a light rain, the weather didn’t feel very cold amidst the brimming activity. Oddly enough we seemed to pick the people with the ink for a couple passes of the omikoshi, be it that we were distracted by soup or by using the bathroom, and the people around us kept making comments about what blank palettes we were. That didn’t stop the retiree photographers with pension money to spend on multiple cameras bigger than their own heads from swarming me like paparazzi, though.

sumi

By about the third time the train started to come by, everyone was ready but me–the hobby photographer crowd and the local cable TV news were all aiming at me while I held the baby and was approached by an old lady who very politely gave me two big dabs of ink on my forehead, two on one cheek, and one on the other. The baby got a single dab, but by the end of the festival her yellow coat was smeared black in several places as she looked around and people watched (or zoned out watching the streamers. It was easy to zone out watching those while waiting for the party to come back around).

What the photographers missed, however, was a few minutes after that when we followed behind the crowd up to the beach where the highlight of the event would take place. Along the way, an old man I had never seen before walked right up to be and grumbled as if something was wrong, and next thing I new, he was pouring beer in his hands and then he rubbed his hands from my cheeks down to my chin. Ah, he really got me this time, I thought, and just as soon as I did he marched back in my direction and swiped his hands around my forehead and temples and then down my nose for good measure. Looks like I’m set up for some really, really good health this year.

As one of my friends later pointed out, I looked like a monkey with the part of my face that was left uncovered. I suppose this is my excitement for the Year of the Monkey showing. Thankfully I am not a Monkey, as you’ll notice later.

Seeing as Katae is situated right along the Sea of Japan, the ocean plays a big role in this winter festival. Where could they be going with those omikoshi?

Right out into the ocean? Why yes, of course.

A brilliant use of brisk weather.

It reminded me how at another winter Mihonoseki festival on the south side of the peninsula the men wear even less and sound even more energetic, and are so distracted that they can’t feel the cold. However, for toshi-otoko, “year-men” born in the same zodiac animal year as that present year, I imagine no amount of distraction could keep them from feeling at least a little chilly.

“Here’s to your good health! Let’s have you start the year by catching a cold!”

Those poor Monkeys.

The festival soon simmered down after that as the omikoshi were parade back up through the neighborhood to return to the shrine, the spectators dispersed, and I remained stuck for a while as photographers documented my thoroughly inked face. Thanks for the snacks and the soup and the good health and a good time, Katae.

“The town where we put ink on each other, Katae”

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