Japan's Sea Whisperers

Although "opening of the sea" may evoke images of Moses parting the Red Sea, this ceremony is not quite what it sounds like.
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If you're headed to Japan this summer, don't miss the fantastic beaches of Shikoku or those on the idyllic islands of the Seto Inland Sea. But before you dive in the water, be sure you know the rules.

Most beaches officially open in July, on a Sunday. Which Sunday is anyone's guess as it varies from beach to beach, so be sure to ask if you don't see anyone else swimming. Before the official opening, most beaches do not permit swimming. This "Opening of the Sea" ceremony is called umibiraki in Japanese.

Although "opening of the sea" may evoke images of Moses parting the Red Sea, this ceremony is not quite what it sounds like. The ceremony is actually to open the beach as well as to make the sea safe for swimming. Regardless of whether you plan on swimming or not or whether there are life guards or not, the sea must be blessed by a priest to make both the beach and sea safe to use.

Those who attend the ceremony are the local people who make a living from tourism and the beach such as owners of restaurants, beach rental houses, hotels, and boat rentals. Also life guards and diving instructors. The attendees (and tourists if you wish to join) sit in chairs facing the sea while the priest performs the rites of the ceremony in front of them.

Where I live, on Shiraishi Island, our Buddhist priest (but more often a Shinto priest in other parts of Japan) starts the ceremony by first facing the sea. There is an altar in front of him on which lies a sacrificial fish, such as a ceremonial Red Snapper, on ice. The fish is accompanied by lettuce, bananas, konbu, rice, salt and a large bottle of sake. The centerpiece is the kagami mochi, a traditional ceremonial rice cake, sitting on a pedestal. Its smooth white beauty is stunningly outlined against the azure sea.

With candles lit, the priest rubs a ceremonial stick across a small bronze bowl. He rubs a string of prayer beads together, jingles a special staff to evoke the attention of the gods, and starts chanting to the sea. In several deep inhalations under his breath, he expels a well-versed medley of sutras, praying for the safety of the sea, beach and tourists. He is the Sea Whisperer.

When he is finished, he takes the large bottle of sake and heads to the water's edge. First he bows to the sea, then he bows to the south, and again to the north. Then he pours sake into the sea: one pour to the west, one pour to the south, and one pour to the north. This concludes the ceremony.

This may seem like a bunch of hoopla just to start off the summer beach season, but remember, this is Japan. The Opening of the Sea is a tradition that has been happening uninterrupted for hundreds of years. This is what Japanese people mean when they say "Japanese people love nature." It's not a denial of pollution, concrete or over reliance on plastics. Instead, it's a reverence for the power of nature--its beauty as well as its destructibility.

After all, when was the last time you sat and took 30 minutes to get in touch with the powers of the sea?

The opening of the sea -- indeed! We should do it more often.

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