A 500 year-old purification ritual and tradition for renewing the rope around the rock exists and is performed during the Kamome-jima Matsuri (Festival). At Esashi, on the Japan Sea coast of Hokkaido, the fishing community’s select young men carry out in July an arduous annual journey to the rock to renew the rope.
The first weekend of July, the Kamome Island Matsuri, pays tribute to the legend of Heishi Rock. A group of young men receive a blessing at a local shrine. They then proceed to swim to the rock, dressed only in the traditional fundoshi, climb on top, and renew the 30-metre shimenawa that embraces the rock. The ritual rope weighs some 500 kilograms (1,100 lb). The festival lasts two days it focuses on the changing of the rope, but also includes a rowing competition, a parade of people dressed in traditional costumes, Taiko and singing performances, and a karaoke contest.
The island once served as a natural port for Edo period ships trading with Hokkaidō or for fishermen seeking to catch Pacific Herring. The historical importance of the herring fishery is reflected in the legend of the Heishi rock.
According to the 500-year-old legend, once upon a time when herring had vanished, an old woman (a fortune teller) was given a bottle with magic liquid. She threw the bottle into the sea and the herring returned. The bottle stuck to the seabed and turned into a rock, which became a representation of the god of the Sea of Japan.
In 1615, a group of merchants raised a shrine on the island to honor the god of the Sea of Japan. See an old map of Kamome-jima here
In 1868 however, the shrine was renamed the Itsukushima Shrine. In 1814, a monument to Matsuo Bashō, the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan, was installed near the shrine. For a long time, the island had problems with fresh water, which was important for passing ships to replenish their supplies. So, in 1876, a merchant from Esashi named Murakami spent a significant amount of money to build a water well on the island. Around that time, the island was also dragged into conflicts between different Japanese clans, and in 1852, two cannons were brought to the island for protecting it and the Esashi city.
Kamome Island (鷗島) or Seagull Island as it is called today, is an island (or more precisely, peninsula) in the Sea of Japan just off the coast of the town of Esashi, Hokkaidō, Japan. Kamome Island’s elongated shape resembles a seagull, thus explaining its name, Kamome, which means seagull. During the Edo period, however, the island was then called Bentenjima (弁天島). This was a common name shared by many Japanese islands because a Hindu goddess Saraswati, called Benzaiten (弁才天) in Japanese Buddhism or Shinto. Benten was worshipped as a goddess of water, and guardian of fishermen, and was therefore enshrined on many Japanese islets.
Kamome Island is part of the coastal terrace, being mostly flat. It rises just 27.6 meters (91 ft) above sea level. The island has a width of about 200 meters (660 ft), a length of about 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) and a coastline of 2.6 kilometers (1.6 mi). It is connected with the mainland by a 500 meters (1,600 ft) long sandbank and thus is accessible by road. As the island stretches roughly from north to south and the mainland lies to the east, the island naturally serves as a natural breakwater and coastal protection from sea waves. An additional wave breaker line was built to extend this protection to the north.
“檜山道立自然公園”. Home page of the Hokkaido government (in Japanese). HOKKAIDO GOVERNMENT. 2006. http://www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/ks/skn/environ/parks/hiyama.htm Retrieved 2009-07-03.
瓶子岩 Heishi-iwa official website of Hiyama Prefecture, Hokkaido (in Japanese) http://www.hiyama.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/ss/srk/html/parts/09heisi_iwa.htm
かもめ島 Esashi Town Guide (in Japanese) A Town Blessed with the Romance of History http://www.hokkaido-esashi.jp
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Place, time and being in Japanese architecture by Kevin Nute, p. 63 Routledge, 2004