Discover ancient salt-making traditions in Futami

Discover ancient salt-making traditions in Futami

Each year hundreds of thousands of people visit Futami to admire the Meotoiwa (rocks of the married couple), one of the most famous tourist spots in Mie Prefecture. However, the Futami area is also home to a jinja (Shinto shrine) that has been perpetuating the ancient craft of salt-making for centuries. Let me introduce Mishiodono Jinja, its annual festival, and the fascinating tradition of salt-making.

Written by Julien Legrand

Located 15 minutes on foot from JR Futamino-Ura Station, Mishiodono Jinja belongs to Ise Jingu, which comprises 125 closely related jinjas located in Ise City and its suburbs. One of the amazing things about Ise Jingu is that it is completely self-sustaining. All the foods used for offerings and rituals such as rice, vegetables, and fish are produced at the venerable places around Ise. The Mishiodono Jinja of Futami enshrines Mishiodono-no-mamori-no-kami, the guardian deity of salt, and its duty is to make salt dedicated to Ise Jingu. Note that this duty is of particular importance since salt is used not only for daily food offerings to the deities but also for purification rituals.

The salt-making process is divided into three steps. The first one begins in late July and takes about one week. Brackish water, a mix of seawater and freshwater, is collected at Mishiohama Beach near the mouth of the Isuzu River. Salt is better produced when seawater is mixed with a little fresh water. During the second step, the brine is taken to a storage hut belonging to the jinja, then cooked in iron cauldrons to make rough salt called arashio.

I went to the Mishiodono Festival held on October 5 each year. This festival marks the beginning of the last step, salt-baking, or yakigatame

The festival started at 10 a.m. sharp with oharai, a purification ritual. This was performed to cleanse any evil or pollution away before giving offerings to the deities.

The Shinto priests then moved to the main building and proceed to offer food to the guardian deity of salt. Each gesture was meticulously executed. I felt the solemnity of this centuries-old tradition. 

After the offerings, the priests prayed for the safety of the salt-baking process and the prosperity of the salt industry in Japan, so the ceremony was also attended by the representatives of the main salt companies from all over Japan.

The festival ends with the lighting of the furnace, performed by one of the head priests in the Mishioyakisho salt-baking hut. After a few minutes, I saw the flames glowing inside the dark building and smoke rising from under the massive thatched roof. 

Rough salt is then packed into pyramid-shaped earthenware vessels and baked to make hard salt called katashio. Over 5 days, 20 lumps of salt will be baked each day for a total of 100. They will be used for the different ceremonies at Ise Jingu during the coming six months.

Now you might wonder what this sacred salt tastes like. Well, I’m afraid there is no way to tell since it’s reserved for the deities and common mortals are not allowed to consume it. But for gourmets, there is a place I can recommend not far from Mishiodono Jinja. After leaving the jinja, walk along the beach toward the Meotoiwa. After passing the rocks, keep walking along the coast for 10 minutes and you will reach a workshop named “Iwato no Shio Kobo” (Iwato Salt Factory).

There I was welcomed by a charming couple, Mr. and Mrs. Momoki. In 2021 they relocated and opened a new workshop with a small shop next to it. If you call in advance, Mr. Momoki will even show you the workshop.

At Iwato no Shio Kobo, salt is produced following 2,000-year-old traditional methods by boiling the brackish water. The first thing I noticed was huge amounts of firewood behind the workshop. Inside there are two long furnaces used for the boiling process. The burning furnaces and the boiling brine was a mesmerizing sight!

Iwato no Shio Kobo salt is ordered from all over the country and some customers even come to Futami to buy it directly from the shop. For example, Mr. Momoki recently received a visit from a famous chef wanting to learn more about Iwato no Shio Kobo salt. The secret of their success? Over 90% of salt products on the market are produced through chemical processes. They are fast and cheap to produce, but poor in nutrients, which get lost in the process. By using traditional — and more time-consuming — techniques, Iwato no Shio Kobo produces salt that is richer in nutrients, and thus healthier. As the workshop is located between the sea and the mountain, the salt contains nutrients from both areas.

Before leaving the store, Mrs. Momoki gave me a final tip. The best way to use Iwato no Shio Kobo salt? Try it on onigiri rice balls! This way you can enjoy the pure taste of the salt, and it will make an ideal healthy snack. Next time you visit Mie Prefecture, make sure to explore this fascinating culture. It will guarantee you a unique and rewarding journey.

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