The Ieshima islands are a group of islands in the Seto Inland Sea, southwest of Himeji. The main island, also called Ieshima, has a jinja, called Ieshima Jinja, and towards the end of last month, the jinja held its main annual matsuri. Most years, this involves decorated boats, and appears to be something of a tourist attraction, but this year, of course, things had to be toned down and reduced in scale. The decorated boats were cancelled, as were other events, and the matsuri was limited to the shinji ceremonies before the kami.
However, the chief priest believed that it was particularly important to do something this year, precisely because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. So, he looked back through the records and found something.
In the past, the jinja had held a purifying ritual when there were epidemics on the island. They would make a small boat and carry it around the island. Every home that had sick people would put a straw doll in the boat, and then the boat would be pushed out to sea to be carried away, while the people sang “Off you go, off you go, off you go plague kami”. This ritual was last carried out during a cholera epidemic in 1920.
So, the jinja decided to do it again. They made a boat out of reeds and straw, about two metres long, and prepared it for the matsuri. The island has, so far, no cases of COVID-19, so this time there were no straw dolls. Instead, three ujiko, representing three neighbourhoods, carried gohei that were about 30 cm long around their area, to absorb the ill-fortune, and then these were mounted in the boat, along with a 70 cm gohei for the whole country. The boat was then presented to the kami during the annual matsuri.
When the matsuri was over, it was taken down to the sea, and as they left the jinja it started raining, with a strong wind blowing up by the time they reached the beach. Because the boat would just wash up on the shore again if it was launched from the beach, some of the ujiko took it out into the bay in a small boat, and pushed it out. As it was sent out to sea, to take the ill-fortune away, the rain stopped. (The very abbreviated article on the Jinja Shinpō website has a picture of the boat being launched.)
There is a picture of the boat in Jinja Shinpō, and it is quite impressive. It has a large piece of paper, a bit like a sail, at the front, saying “Current Carry Away Plague Kami” in large letters, with smaller requests for happy households and safe voyages underneath. The gohei are all lined up behind it.
The idea that impurity (kegarë) can be dealt with by sending it out to sea is a common one in Shinto, found in the Ōharaëkotoba, the great purification prayer, which is probably over 1300 years old. Similarly, the idea of sending small dolls out to sea for purification is found in many purification rituals, and is thought to be the origin of the contemporary Hina Matsuri, or Doll Festival. The substitution of gohei for dolls because they had no cases of the disease is an interesting bit of adaptation. This is, of course, how traditions survive and develop.