Hundreds of people in white – loincloths for men and light clothes for women – bathe in the sea to purify their body and soul as the sun comes up between a pair of sacred rocks in front of them. The ritual “Geshisai” takes place at daybreak on “geshi,” the summer solstice, every year at Futami Okitama Shrine in Ise city, Mie prefecture. For one month before and after the solstice, the sun rises between the paired rocks called “Meotoiwa” or “Wedded Rocks” above the horizon. The sunrise is seen just at the midpoint of the two rocks for one week before and after the solstice. Only during these weeks, the sun appears to come up from behind Mt. Fuji in the far distance, if the weather permits.
The solstice is an astronomical event that occurs twice a year, one in summer and the other in winter. On the summer solstice, the sun reaches its highest position with the earth’s axis tilted towards the sun more than any other days of the year. This results in the day with the longest hours of daylight. In Tokyo, the daytime on the summer solstice is about 5 hours longer than that on the winter solstice. Because of the tilt of the earth’s axis, the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere is the winter solstice in southern hemisphere. This year, the summer solstice falls on June 22 in Japan.
Unlike Europe and the U.S., the summer solstice is not celebrated much in Japan. It is also a low-key event when compared with the spring equinox, the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. The days of the spring equinox and the autumn equinox are national holidays. On the winter solstice, it is customary to take a “yuzu” citron bath and eat squashes for good health. There is not such nationally practiced custom on the summer solstice. It might have been getting less attention because it comes in the gloomy rainy season and the busy rice-planting season in some regions.
Around the time of the summer solstice, many photographers gather at Futami Okitama Shrine. However, the chances of seeing beautiful sunrises there are not high because it is in the middle of the rainy season. Still, this small shrine keeps attracting visitors with one of its “torii” gates standing off shore. “Meotoiwa” is actually the shrine gate for the divine stone “Okitama Shinseki” underwater about 700 meters offshore. The bigger male rock and the smaller female rock are tied with five sacred straw ropes. The area also flourished as a place to perform “misogi” or ablutions before visiting nearby Jingu, the major shrine more commonly known as “Ise Jingu.”
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