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North Japan pref. sees traditional shrine visits, bonfire festivals curtailed in pandemic

Masked Hadakamairi participants are seen walking around a bonfire at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine in Sendai's Aoba Ward on Jan. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Issei Takizawa)

SENDAI -- Amid the spread of coronavirus infections and a state of emergency declared for multiple densely populated prefectures, Miyagi Prefecture in north Japan has seen traditional winter festivities curtailed or canceled.

    Among the affected events were Donto festivals, in which people burn New Year ornaments and old talismans, held around the prefecture on Jan. 14. A traditional "Hadakamairi," in which half-naked people visit Shinto shrines, was also held at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine in the prefectural capital of Sendai's Aoba Ward. This year's participants wished for the end of the pandemic, but attendance numbers were far lower than usual. Hadakamairi events were canceled in some parts of the prefecture.

    In 2020, the festival at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine attracted some 170,000 people, with about 3,000 participating in the Hadakamairi. But this year many withdrew from the Hadakamairi over the spread of coronavirus infections, and only 368 people from 50 organizations applied to strip down for it. Visitor numbers to the shrine this year are also likely to have dropped to around 100,000 people.

    The shrine called for infection prevention measures including social distancing. An association for the preservation of Sendai's Hadakamairi canceled its "Mizugori" event in which people cleanse their bodies with cold water. Participants in some festival events traditionally keep pieces of paper between their lips to refrain from talking, but this year participants wore masks instead.

    The Hadakamairi participants hold talismans to ward off plagues while walking toward Osaki Hachimangu Shrine in Sendai's Aoba Ward on Jan. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Issei Takizawa)

    Half-naked men with white cloths wrapped around their bodies and women wearing white coats, all of whom were masked, paraded to ward off plagues. Yasuhiro Haruki, 45, a bar manager in the city's Kokubuncho district, visited the shrine with four of his staff and customers, and said while shivering in the cold, "We've shortened our business hours. We came here to pray for the end of the coronavirus pandemic."

    The Donto Festival at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine dates back more than 300 years, and the festivals have also been held at other shrines in the prefecture since the 1980s. The event was registered as an intangible folklore cultural asset in Sendai in 2005. Hadakamairi is said to have been started by sake brewers wishing for safe and successful brewing, and now employees at companies and other organizations participate in it to foster a sense of togetherness.

    Due to the increase in coronavirus infections, Hadakamairi events have been called off in some areas. Hadakamairi events typically attended by some 160 people in normal years at the Sanuma Donto festival held at two shrines in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Tome's Sanuma district, were canceled this year, with only the making of a bonfire to burn used ornaments and old talismans being observed.

    Out of consideration for the infection situation, the youth division of the chamber of commerce in the city of Kakuda also decided on Jan. 10 to cancel their Hadakamairi event, in which some 100 people normally visit six shrines in the city. A division official said it was a hard decision, adding, "We wanted to hold the event to pray for the end of the pandemic, but we can't cause infections with it."

    (Japanese original by Issei Takizawa, Sendai Bureau)

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