Diving into misogi, the ancient Japanese ritual of waterfall bathing

Whether you’re a believer or not, the Shinto ritual of waterfall bathing offers a chance to reset — and immerse yourself in the spiritual beauty of Japan’s mountains.

Saturday, May 9, 2020,
By Oliver Smith
Worshippers brave the cold temperatures of Kiyotaki Falls near Otaki for a traditional ‘water cleansing’ ceremony.

Worshippers brave the cold temperatures of Kiyotaki Falls near Otaki for a traditional ‘water cleansing’ ceremony.

Photograph by Ben Weller

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I say to my guide, giddy with bravado. “I’m from England — it’s a cold country. I’ll take to this like a duck to water.”

This is a lie. I’ve never done anything like misogi before. The word translates as ‘water cleansing’; in the Shinto faith (one of the major religions of Japan), standing under a waterfall is a way to purify your soul. I’d wanted to try it out so I could immerse myself in one of Japan’s key spiritual traditions. I imagined it being like waterfall bathing in shampoo adverts, where the current is balmy, tropical birds swoop and someone plays the steel drums.

But when we arrive at the waterfall, set beneath Mount Shichimen, the torrents are icy, crashing down from frosty heights. At this time of year — mid-winter — the water has a polar temperature, my guide tells me with surprising relish. I spot an inflatable Santa on a nearby windowsill. A worrying thought takes hold: perhaps I’ve been too hasty in committing to this. 

Shichimen is in Kanto, a region west of Mount Fuji on Japan’s largest island, Honshu — a world of hanging valleys, mountaintop temples and sacred pathways winding through forests of maple and oak. Here, as elsewhere in Japan, holiness is rooted in the natural world. For Shinto followers, the divine moves in the passing of seasons, the falling of autumn leaves, in water ebbing through the landscape. 

Earlier in the morning, at the guesthouse near the waterfall, I’d met Tamaki Harayama, a pilgrim who’d come to Shichimen for a week of waterfall cleansing. She’d offered to initiate me in this rite, first handing me a man’s misogi costume to change into — a loincloth tied with a knot. Now I wonder if I can fasten it properly. I have a premonition of horrified onlookers, a wail of sirens, calls to the embassy. To preserve the sanctity of Shichimen, I opt for a woman’s robe instead. 

I fritter away minutes rearranging my clothes in the changing room. And then I pause to admire the pond near the waterfall. “Like a duck to water,” I think. I step in, right under the thunderbolt of cold water. The adrenalin feels like drinking a thousand Red Bulls. Hours of fearful anticipation melt away in a minute of heady exhilaration. My skin burns, endorphins fizzle. Stepping out again, I experience quiet euphoria — a feeling that will linger on throughout the rest of the day. 

I dart to the guesthouse and sink into its hot spring — feeling like a ready meal moved from the freezer to the oven — and simmer happily, emerging in high spirits, with glowing cheeks. 

Whether you have faith or not, misogi can offer a true transformation, pressing Control-Alt-Delete on your body. “Your face has opened up,” says Tamaki later. “You’re transformed. When you go home, I think you’ll be a little different.”

How to do it
Misogi takes place at the discretion of local guardians of the waterfall. Heartland Japan, which specialises in tours around the Kanto region, offers the three-day Mount Minobu Spiritual Tour, taking in the Buddhist temples and landscapes close to Shichimen.

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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