For much of the world, there is little more decadent than dining out on lobster. However, here in Japan, lobster – while still relatively pricey compared to most seafood – is by no means the preserve of the uber-rich, and nor is the festival that celebrates it each year.
All along the Pacific coast of Japan lives a spiny form of lobster that has for centuries been fished in the Shima Peninsula, off the coastline of Mie Prefecture. Named after Ise Bay where historically they were caught at greater levels than anywhere else in the country, Ise ebi (literally, though somewhat misleadingly, ‘prawns from Ise’) are famed for their bright red shells and juicy white flesh, and are so important to Mie’s east coast that there is an annual festival to celebrate their very existence.
Ise ebi is considered to be the most fortuitous of foods, hence its connection with the New Year festivities, but down the centuries for the people in Hamajima-cho in the Shima National park, Ise ebi has been the lifeblood of their community. Here the skills of lobster fishing have been passed down from generation to generation, and each year on the first Saturday of June, in order to commemorate the end of the fishing season they get together to salute this most delicious of decapods, this most lip-smacking of langoustines, this most rocking of rock lobsters.
The festival, which has been held since 1954, starts at 13:00 with a blessing ceremony to pray for a profitable fishing season in the coming year and the safety of the town. With this solemn formality undertaken, the festival can truly begin as children fill the streets in garish costumes to take part in a dancing competition, a taster of what is to come.
Dancing is a central theme to the Ise Ebi Festival, and from between 15:00 and 17:00, 30 troupes of adult dancers – also dressed in fantastic outfits – will compete to show off their their ‘jakoppe’ skills, a dance local to the area that is an integral element to the festival (and if you too want to get involved, you can find instructions of how to dance the jakoppe here).
From 18:00 choju-jiru, or ‘long life soup’ is served, a luxurious miso soup made with the delicious Ise ebi, after which, from 19:00 to 20:45, comes the main event: the parade.
Dancing along the beautiful setting of the Coastal Road, the troupes return, getting their jakoppe on, accompanied by local musicians. People line the street to cheer them on until the finale, when the giant 6.5m, 450kg lobster ‘mikoshi’ portable shrine is carried aloft by presumably exhausted revelers. Not a sight you are likely to see elsewhere on this planet…
Then, because a summer festival in Japan wouldn’t be the same without it, from 8:45 there is the traditional fireworks display set to music, that is perhaps just as spectacular (if not quite as bizarre) as all that has gone before.
If you are in the area, there are loads of things to do around Ise and Shima. Check out our post here all about it.
By Mark Guthrie