Thanks to my niece, who found a mention of this festival through her favorite Japanese seasonal treat shop, I recently attended a midsummer purification ritual at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Granite Falls, Washington. The purpose of the ritual is to get rid of any negative energy from the first half of the year in order to begin the second half of the year with a fresh start. In Japan at the Tsubaki Shrine, the purification ritual takes place each year on June 30.
I didn’t know much about Shinto before this day. Now I know a little: that this ancient series of practices honors the kami, sometimes translated as “gods and goddesses,” or “spirits,” but also as “Great Nature.” The attitude of respect for all things was evident from the moment we arrived and strolled down a gravelly drive, under the drooping branches of leafy summer trees, and through a decorative gate (torii) to arrive at the shrine, which was set back in the woods. We were asked to wash our hands and mouths before entering the shrine; to bow two times, clap our hands twice, and bow again; ring one of the two large temple bells; and remove our shoes before entering the shrine itself.
After making an offering for the ceremony, we were given little rice paper dolls on which we wrote our names and birthdates (vertically, like on a scroll) as well as anything we wanted to get rid of. We could also write down problems or concerns or attitudes we wanted to shed and mark places on the silhouette of the paper doll that were causing trouble. To put our personal mark on the doll, we each used a stamp pad to label our doll with an orange thumbprint.
The ceremony included prayers and chants in Japanese as well as various purifications, including having an evergreen branch hung with tiny bells over our heads. It reminded me a bit of the smoking censers or the sprinkling with holy water from aspergillum of my Catholic childhood, which are also methods used for purification.
At one point we went outside and processed three times through a large hoop wrapped with rice straw, and we chanted a prayer before walking down to the nearby river that sparkled in the sunlight. The priest tossed the little paper dolls into the water, and we watched our dolls dissolve in the water as the current carried them downstream.
After the ceremony ended – with more blessings and hand clapping and bows – we wandered around the grounds of the shrine, admiring a huge cedar tree wrapped with a rice straw rope and several shrines surrounded by ceramic statues of guardian deities, such as frogs and foxes. On the way back to the car, my niece rescued a tiny red salamander that had wandered out into the driveway.
Whether or not you engage in a specific ritual, think about the ways that you might align with this turning point in the year to shed things that oppress you and go forth into the second half of the year (the feminine part of the year, according to the Chinese calendar) with a clean slate.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”