Last week, I volunteered at Asakusa Jinja’s Natsumoude event. I did this last year as well, and last year I was able to attend a special matsuri at a well in the jinja precincts. This year, I was able to watch the Hōchō Shiki.
This is a ceremony in which a fish is prepared for the kami without the chef touching the fish with his hands even once. Instead, it is manipulated with long chopsticks and the knife.
This event was clearly ceremonial — it was held outside the prayer hall of the jinja, where it was easy for people to see it, and involved a lot of waving the knife around over the chef’s head. (So much so that he knocked his own hat off at one point, and one of the people attending had to put it back on for him. The chef did not miss a beat of the ceremony while that happened.) After the fish (eel, in this case) had been prepared, it was taken inside the prayer hall, and formally offered to the kami.
I had never seen such a ceremony before, although I had heard of them, so that was interesting.
A point of broader theological interest concerns kegarë, or impurity. It is often stated that blood is a source of kegarë in Shinto, and traditionally that is certainly true. However, chopping a fish up does involve some blood, and this ceremony was performed in front of the kami. (Granted, outside the prayer hall, which may have been significant, but last year’s well ceremony was also performed outside the prayer hall. It might have been simply to make the ceremony visible to visitors.)
As with most things in Shinto, the question of impurity is a lot more complex than one might initially think.