Under normal conditions – prior to COVID times – every year in early February, one of Japan’s strangest festivals would be held in Daito, Ohara of Ichinoseki. Brave men would run through the streets half-naked while being doused with ice-cold water. The following is a remarkable account of a former Ichinoseki Assistant Language Teacher who participated in the Daito Ohara Mizukake Matsuri.


The Invigorating Chill

You feel the alarming rush of ice cold water as it smashes across your face, blinding you mid-sprint. You must continue to run sightless as you are enclosed by others like you in barely more than your underwear and tightly wrapped bandages across your gut. All of this while snow falls above your head in a mad dash to reach your next checkpoint. You reach your destination only to be rewarded with the dread of waiting for your next chance to run and generate body heat as it sinks in that you are slowly feeling numb in your fingertips, and the sharp needles is the last vestige of feeling they have left. You become anxious and impatient waiting for the horn to blare signaling your chance for some modicum of warmth. The truth is that this sensation has only just begun as you must repeat this cycle several times over. Just when you think it is all over you will form a circle with your fellow teeth chattering brethren as a deluge of water is then unleashed upon you at point blank range.

This is the Mizukake Matsuri, or Water throwing festival, held in Ohara of Iwate on the 11th of every February. It is a tradition held for several hundred years. A long time ago there was a great fire during the production of Kimonos. This event is a reminder of that event and the importance of fire safety. Unfortunately it is a tradition in which only men can participate. Women are not allowed to run or throw water during the festivities. The privilege of throwing water itself is given to the local school’s baseball team. It is thrown from troughs filled with water placed on the side of the street.

Before running in the event, the participating men must take off everything but their underwear and very short white shorts to put over them. It is generally deemed that you should be wearing white underwear. You are then fitted and wrapped in a sarashi, or a long white cloth, as tightly as possible by either friends or locals. It is highly recommended that you make a trip to the restroom before this fitting as it will be your last chance for several hours. You then put on tabi-socks, which separate your largest toe from the rest because you will be putting on a type of sandals made from straw. These sandals have an intricate way of fastening to your feet, with your toes jutting out from the ends. At the end of the event you will be cut out of them by a pair of scissors.

Many participants run with messages written on their backs. These could be anything from resolutions, who they may be running for, good luck charms, or just the chance to have something embarrassing written on them by their friends. Once the time has come everyone is directed to walk outside. We then walk across the town to a nearby temple to pray, and have an inaugural splash of water sprayed upon us. We then walk back to the starting line of the street we will be running on, and are given a wooden charm for good luck to tuck between our sarashi as we run. All in all we are outside for about an hour before the running even begins, giving plenty of time for the natural cold to settle in.

Now you may be wondering as to why anyone would participate in such a foolish thing. From an outside perspective it may just seem like an insane thing to do. I can only speak for myself and my personal experience on the matter. I’ve never been one to do impractical things and am generally a very reserved and shy person. But several years ago a friend took me to the event. I saw it and thought, “I’m in Japan, what better chance is there than to do something I normally wouldn’t do.” I had been pushing myself to try new things and get new perspectives on life. So at that moment I decided I need to do this or something like it at least once. The following year I asked several of my Japanese friends if they would join me. Almost everyone I asked had a very quick and resounding “No.” It wasn’t until the year after that I had made a new friend that was willing to run with me. We ran together and the feeling was incredible. Of course in the actual moment it is arduous and freezing, but instead of focusing on that I found myself becoming overwhelmed by the rush of doing something outside the norms, by the sudden and instantaneous camaraderie forged by these strangers I shared this experience with. There is an unspoken kinship made when sharing in adversity with others. I have a newfound appreciation for life and mankind’s tendency to lift up and support others in times of need. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the overwhelming positivity and gumption of your fellow man. The feeling is both contagious and a breath of fresh air. It is an undeniably powerful sensation to be released from your shackles of self-doubt and insecurity. It is for these reasons I have participated in the festival for three years in a row. I have since convinced some of my friends from Tokyo to join, and they even came back for a second time. I implore you to take risks and do something you wouldn’t normally do. You might be surprised by just how liberating and refreshing it can be. It’s remarkable how a freezing splash of ice-cold water may be the wake-up call that changes your life.

(Written originally for Ichinoseki-life by Kevin Kanalley )