KAMAKURA’S SACRED ROCK POWER AND BEYOND
Updated: Jan 21
Keeping foreign swimmers away from our neighborhood 2.5 km race to a secretive power spot seemed increasingly puzzling to me.
Did the ocean spot, where an ancient Kamakura rock was discovered hundreds of years ago, really possess a divine power that could heal our souls and bodies in times of crisis?
Or was it just another local myth passed down from generation to generation?
And yet, while I was still searching for the secret behind a sacred race on this side of Pacific, our world has slowly been turning into chaos. Our community secrets continued to be buried deep in our memories; the death of our loved ones was marking each passing month.
My elderly Japanese and foreign friends on both sides of our Eurasian continent were passing away faster than ever, but access to the healing power spot continued to be restricted.
Why would this annually performed community event remain so different from all the other Pacific races and offshore mikoshi-celebrations that I was allowed to participate in for years?
Our annual Shonan rough water celebrations and other seasonal rituals differed greatly. Yet, these seasonal events used to attract many overseas participants, who were curious to experience offline the living Japanese culture along with local folks, rather than just YouTube-ing...
The annual ritual of escorting the local deity from our neighborhood Ishigami shrine deep into Kamakura bay was called umi no-mikoshi.
The small mikoshi, an altar housing a deity, was ceremoniously placed on board a local fisher’s boat moored near our Sakanoshita pier.
As many of the boats used to be beached near the hut of my widowed fisherwoman friend, Yuka, I knew their owners well enough to barter fresh sardine or an octopus for a few cans of local beer.
The portable altar’s solemn voyage behind the pier toward a spot facing Enoshima and Mt. Fuji was usually held on the third Monday of July on a Day of Veneration of the Ocean, or umi-no-hi.
The mikoshi’s sea journey was always accompanied by a Shinto priest, or Kanushi, and a group of traditionally dressed youngsters playing drums and bamboo flutes.
The fishing boat was escorted by two dozen local swimmers.
Though I used to compete against some of these Shonan swimmers in other Pacific races, in this particular Kamakura race, I was defeated before I was even allowed to join them in the water.
The rules were strictly observed: only pre-selected swimmers were permitted by our community leaders to participate.
It took me years of trying before realizing that being disqualified several years in a row was actually, for a field anthropologist as I am, a blessing in disguise.
The continuing rejection to join umi-no-mikoshi helped me to navigate within the invisible community boundaries that I had hardly ever noticed before in our neighborhood.
As there were many other races that foreign swimmers were welcomed to join, I kept training hard around the year to be ready to face the rock. I was assured by my fellow lifeguards, whom I had joined in the meantime, that in the following year, I would surely be permitted to join our community swimmers in the Umi-no-Mikoshi race.
We were wrong!
The race that linked our Gokurakuji and Hase neighbourhoods with local gods has always gathered culturally mixed crowds of onlookers.
Foreign and Japanese tourists were happily mingling with the locals along the pier and sidewalk of busy route 134.
The joyful atmosphere was becoming friendlier with more loads of beer and sake bottles brought to the beach by tattooed volunteers in a festive mood. Though tattoos and drinking on Kamakura beaches were forbidden by the mayor’s orders, on this particular day his powers seemed void.
The beach belonged to the Gods!
The traditionally decorated beach tent was manned by our local community leaders dressed in yukatas.
As some of the officials were living near my hillside studio, I used to exchange greetings with their wives during our encounters at the local ‘Mitome’ shop.
Some other families, who lived near our local Goryo and Ishigami shrines, I only met incidentally during other Kamakura festivals and hardly ever socialized with them.
And yet, I became familiar with the faces of many of the local men during my twice weekly commuting to nearby Yokohama and Tokyo.
Though we occasionally shared benches on board our local commuting trains in the late evenings, they seemed too tired to notice me or anyone else. They kept their eyes closed until we reached Hase Station.
Their darkish office suits, subdued neckties, polished shoes, and black briefcases looked similar. Even their faces carried a similar expression of exhaustion.
Then, one summer day, everything would change. It felt as if some kind of magical energy was transforming the neighborhood.
I could hardly recognize the faces of the men I used to meet in passing for years. They were turning into smiling family men proudly showing off their traditionally dressed wives and daughters.
Their defeated smiles and office suits were replaced by cheerful expressions and festive summer kimonos.
Yet, as soon as they exchanged their suits for traditional outfits and gathered at the spot reserved for the officials, their attitude seemed to change. They remained friendly, and yet at the same time reserved in a particular polite way.
The first year, when I arrived wearing my swimming trunks to the festive tent a few hours before the race and asked if I could join, I was greeted in English by a friendly official in his mid-fifties.
“Sorry, you are too late,” he sounded almost apologetic.
“But there is nobody here except two of us and a fisherman,” I pointed at the moored boat.
“Because they are changing to the swimming gear,” he gestured towards a nearby fishing hut and switched to local Japanese dialect. “Can you swim in rough water?”
“Yes, I just recently completed the 800m Power Sports International Race,” I showed him the remains of a race number on my arm and pointed at the Zaimokuza side of the bay.
“800 meters is not enough for the Sakanoshita race. It’s over 1.400 meters depending on waves.”
Then he turned his attention to a group of local kids wearing summer kimonos and playing traditional Japanese drums and bamboo flutes. I knew many of them from our other onshore mikoshi-festivals.
The two dozen swimmers brought a mikoshi altar and, like a year earlier, installed it on board a fishing boat. The fishing boat was different, but the ceremonial voyage to the spot facing the sacred Mt. Fuji was exactly the same.
Two hours later the group was back on shore. Only the swimmers, who successfully completed the ritual encounter with the ocean gods, were awarded Ishigami shrine’s protective amulets, or omamori.
The local fisher folk believe that a wooden Ishigami omamori necklace, possess a power to protect its bearer against illnesses, accidents, and other life misfortunes.
In contrast to all the other omamori, this particular Ishigami amulet, could not be bought in a shrine. It must be earned in a tough race.
The following summer I was ready for a community swimming challenge again.
“Can you swim?” The official asked.
“Yes, I have just completed an 800 meters race plus an 800 m relay, and I also serve as a lifeguard at Kamakura-Shichirigahama beach.”
“Sorry 800 meters and a relay aren’t enough. It’s over 1.4 km in a row and this race is organized by our Kamakura Gokurakuji-Hase local community.”
“I have been living in Gokurakuji for the last few years.” I showed him my Foreign Resident ID and pointed at the hill where my writing studio was located. Instead of checking my ID, the official checked his watch and apologized “Sorry we are running late. Please try next year!”
During the following twelve months, I was fortunate to join another Umi-no- Mikoshi ceremony on the Zaimokuza side of Kamakura bay. As the offshore celebrations involved a sea procession in the shallow waters, I was sure I would finally make it in Sakanoshita as well.
The following summer I arrived at the beach long before the ceremonial tent was set up. As there was another official in charge, he asked me a slightly different set of questions. But I was prepared. Though I have completed a 1,5 km race two weeks earlier, and showed him a certificate, I was told it wasn’t enough.
“But I was informed last year that it was around 1,4 km,” I tried to explain. “Sure, one way if there wouldn’t be any undercurrents... And you have to swim back! And by the way, have you ever participated in any Umi-no-Mikoshi before?”
“Yes, I carried Mikoshi to the sea on the Zaimokuza side of the bay...”
“Well, Zaimokuza folks keep their Mikoshi to the shallow waters and allow too many tattooed altar-bearers from out of town...” He turned his attention to the arriving Shinto priest, or Kanushi.
The solemn expression of a middle aged priest dressed in formal religious attire seemed familiar. If it was Mr. Kikuchi, whom I met in our local ‘Mitome’ shop wearing leisurely clothes, I wasn’t sure. He was accompanied by the local officials whose faces I also remembered from the same liquor shop.
My attempts to approach the priest and negotiate with the organizers were unsuccessful until I spotted two fellow lifeguards among the racers. They offered me encouraging smiles and pointed at the official tent surrounded by an NHK TV crew shooting a documentary.
While the crew was interviewing the organizers and swimmers about the importance of keeping local festivals alive, I asked if I could be allowed to join this year. Instead of an answer, I was offered a regretful smile. That was it.
With every passing year, my negotiations involving our local officials were becoming increasingly intriguing, if not exhaustive and confusing.
Even, showing a certificate that I had completed a 3 km Rough Water Race of Japan Series in a nearby Zaimokuza beach didn’t help. I was asked by a sternly looking elderly man how good a swimmer I was in a rough water relay.
And even my fellow lifeguards confirmed that I indeed swam with them in rough water relays without any problems, I failed the next question: “Did you swim holding the ‘sekhin’ rice in one hand to honor the rock?”
When I admitted, that I didn’t, he offered me a regretful smile. I knew I had failed the test again.
My yukata-dressed neighbors seemed not only skilled in art of polite excuses for keeping foreign residents at bay, but always remained regretful.
It felt that some mysterious higher powers were in play that kept preventing them from changing their minds.
I was almost ready to give up when in the following year an unexpected breakthrough arrived.
At the Annual International Rough Water Race I bumped into one of my visiting EU friends, Brunon. As Brunon was also a fellow member of our Kamakura Henna Gaijin Club (HGSC), he suggested that we apply jointly for the coming Umi-no-Mikoshi race. Though, we were rejected by the tent officials again, Brunon insisted that we should swim as a separate HGSC team parallel to the main event. While technically we swam outside of the ceremonial space, we were following the event nonetheless.
We were already several hundred meters offshore, when we were noticed by a jet ski rider patrolling the border zone on behalf of the organizers. Thinking that the rapidly increasing waves had drifted us off course from the main swimming group, the patrolman cautioned us to follow him and join all the other swimmers.
Only after making sure that we safely joined the group, he grinned. Then with a cheerful ‘Gambatte – Do your best!” he disappeared behind the pier.
The boat carrying the organizing committee was already too far ahead to notice our transgression.
And as soon we joined the fellow swimmers, we were invited to share the ceremonial red-rice relay. Passing from hand-to-hand the festive bowls of boiled rice with red beans, we reached the secret ocean spot where the divine rock was discovered centuries earlier.
Against the backdrop of Enoshima and Mt. Fuji, we all had jointly performed the ritual of sharing the sakhin rice bowls with each other. The remains of the rice we shared with the ocean gods residing at the bottom of Kamakura bay.
Then we raced back to the Sakanoshita shore. The undercurrents and increasing waves kept pushing us back, and the 3 km race turned beyond 4 km.
Though I made it as the last swimmer, I was overwhelmed by joy and ceremonial sake that I was greeted with on the beach.
Phil, a 74 years old Chair-for-Life of our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club (HGSC) who witnessed our race from the Sakanoshita shore, gave Brunon and I, a thumbs up. We earned our Ishigami amulets, omamori, against the odds.
After sharing more sake and fresh sashimi with the fellow swimmers and local entrepreneurs supporting the race, we joined a long procession carrying the Mikoshi to the Ishigami shrine. Then something unexpected happened that made us nervous.
We were already reaching a narrow street corner behind the famous historical confectionary “Chikaramochi” and “Poerava” Windsurfing School when suddenly a stranger dressed in yukata ran towards Brunon and I. He gestured to a silver-haired man, whom I remembered as a stern member of the Organizing Committee.
To our surprise, instead of being reprimanded for transgressing the rules, we were awarded 1.000 yen each. The banknotes were neatly placed in the traditionally ornament envelopes.
A few minutes later, our procession passed the Enoden Railway’s crossing and reached the sacred gate of the Goryo shrine.
On the right side of the main shrine, in a little yard facing the green mountain, I noticed its Ishigami sub-shrine and a number of sacred rocks and engraved stone tablets.
Before Brunon and I could figure out which of the rocks was connected with the deities of the ocean, we were toasted with more sake by the fellow bearers of Ishigami omamori. Among them was Toru Sakai, the jet-ski rider who had helped us to join the race. Before I could thank him, he was gone.
I didn’t know then, that Toru was one of Kamakura’s most accomplished professional windsurfers competing in overseas races and running his own training school.
The ceremonial money we earned in the race we invested in more sake and beer at the local beach taverns that were tightly protected by uniformed guards.
The beach seemed to follow two parallel security arrangements:
one controlled by the hired security guards under Kamakura mayor’s orders; and the other one guarded by the local deities living in the ocean and an ancient omamori culture.
As always, on the third Monday of July, I revisited Sakanoshita beach hoping to join the 2020 Annual Race to the Sacred Ocean Venue.
There was neither the ceremonial tent nor Mikoshi altar ready to be taken for a journey onboard a fishing boat, nor the beaming with joy crowds.
I visited a hut of my fisherwoman friend Yuka. She shared with me sad news that no boat was needed as the 2020 Umi-no-Mikoshi was cancelled due to the social distancing brought by the pandemic.
Last week I called Ishigami’s main Goryo shrine to ask if the foreigners would be allowed to join the 2021 Umi-no-Mikoshi Race. I was told that it all depends on the third wave.
Suddenly, the issue wasn’t anymore who is a Japanese and who is not, but how the coming third wave may affect all of us.
Sadly, not all of my friends have made it safely through the pandemic.
Last summer, just before his 95th birthday, Shigeo Kato, an actor-turned-writer- and-fisherman passed away. Shigeo who shared with me his family’s memories of the divine Kamakura rock was taken away from us by the first wave of the pandemic.
Before leaving on his last journey, Shigeo left behind his self-illustrated collection of local stories and legends. He wanted me to share it with my Eurasian grandchildren.
10,000 km away. On the other side of our Eurasian continent, the second wave of the pandemic had taken away another beautiful storyteller, Teresa.
Teresa Kaminska of Kamionki, passed away soon after her 89th birthday in November 2020. She was my late father’s youngest sister.
In my childhood days, I loved to listen to young Auntie Teresa’s stories about the magical rocks hidden along country road of our ancestral village of Kamionki (‘Kamionki’ means Little Rocks in Polish).
And whenever my Swedish-born daughter and my Japan-born-son visited their Grand Auntie Teresa on the other side of Eurasia, she was always curious to learn about their lives in faraway Japan.
Four years ago, during my latest visit to my native Poland, I shared with Teresa the fisher folks’ stories about a powerful rock discovered 10,000 km away in an ancient Kamakura.
She wondered if omamori amulets possess a similar protective power as the holy picture she always kept in her car. When I said that some omamori may indeed guard against accidents and other misfortunes, Auntie Teresa joked she may one day visit us on her journey.
Teresa, Shigeo, and other wonderful storytellers are already gone to the other side of life.
While our lives have been undergoing changes that we had hardly ever imagined only a year earlier, the graveyards on both side of Eurasia are getting crowded with the new rocks.
Though, due to the pandemics, I couldn’t attend Teresa’s funeral that was held in our ancestral village of Kamionki last month, I decided to celebrate her memory in Kamakura.
On December 28, I cycled from Enoshima to the familiar Goryo shrine and prayed for Teresa’s departing soul in our native Polish.
Then I revisited the familiar rocks resting along the little Ishigami shrine and offered Teresa a memorial omamori at the sacred yard.
Before leaving, I asked the stern-faced Shrine Master, Kikuchi-Sama, if he will also preside over the 2021 Umi-no-Mikoshi journey to the powerful ocean venue. He said, it all depends on the third wave. Though, he didn’t wear his traditional attire of Kanushi, or a Shinto priest, he remained politely reserved.
For a while he listened to my recollections about my many unsuccessful attempts to earn a Ishigami omamori during the past Umi-no-Mikoshi celebrations.
When I mentioned a certain windsurfer’s help to join the sacred race, the Kanushi seemed to know who the man in question was. Yet, he surprisingly didn’t mention Toru Sakai by name.
Our recollections of the pre-pandemic swimming races to the secretive spots inhabited by the local deities were suddenly interrupted by another shrine visitor interested in power rocks. The priest checked his watch and focused his attention on someone else.
On the way back to my bicycle, I bumped into the familiar figure of Toru Sakai. Though he was busy cleaning the boards of his “Poerava Windsurfing School”, he greeted me in his usual friendly way. Learning that I displaced the Ishigami’s omamori I had earned at the Umi-no-Mikoshi race several years earlier, he offered me his own.
For a while, we chatted about the time when Toru’s patrolling jet-ski had helped me and Brunon to break cultural boundaries by joining the race. Before we parted, he wished me good luck, with his cheerful “Gambatte!”
On my way back to Enoshima, I stopped by the fishing village and as always parked my bicycle between Yuka’s hut and her beached boat.
The beach seemed deserted. Then I noticed a young couple. They were enjoying the remains of the sunset while chatting in a mixture of English and Japanese. A few minutes later, the couple disappeared into the darkness.
If the healing power of the ancient rocks will ever erase the artificial ethnic boundaries remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we continue wearing our protective masks and follow the new rules of social distancing. And yet some people keep falling in love. The life goes on...
THE BLOGS ARE CHAPTERS OF MY FORTHCOMING BOOK