More photos from last Sunday’s Hiwatari Matsuri (Fire Walking Festival) at Tokyo’s Hachioji City’s holy Mount Takao. Even though I was one of the first in line to pick a good spot there were so many participants I had a hard time getting the shots I wanted. Especially when shooting something as long and complicated as this, it is hard to get a sense of the ritual narrative of the events. For most people seeing these photos, it must look like random snapshots from a chaotic meet up, like a 16 random stills from a random Hollywood movie.
The dojo, or the training ground was quite big and although we stood way away from the fire the heat, as it was tossed in waves over us as the wind blew the hot air in our direction was immense. The other side of the bonfire, up on the hill was cleared out in advance as the wind was generally blowing in that direction for the day. I was lucky my camera didn’t melt!
One of the ceremonies that took place before the bonfire was lit was the weapons training. An axe, a sword and a bow were used while chanting invocations. For the occasion, the shugenja in charge of the ceremony was miked up so we could hear the chant perfectly through loudspeakers. It was quite dramatic. The archer let off three arrows in three different directions at an angle against the crowd. The luckiest of the luckiest of the visitors actually managed to catch an arrow and according to tradition is now going to be pretty safe from all sorts of misfortunes.
After the bonfire was lit the shugenja would run up to it with buckets of clear spring water to purify the fire, while three stands of talismans dedicated to the Buddhist guardian Brahma would be paraded around the bonfire. At this part of the ceremony everything is moving very quickly and the shugenja (mountain ascetics, shugendo monks or warrior monks) are doing their best trying to control the fire and to throw in the votive sticks dedicated by the visitors. It was interesting trying to take photos over the heated air from the fire, I included two of the clearest photos here, and still they look like I played around some very bad photoshop filters!
The head shugenja were busy relying instructions and orders to the others, and a group of them walked around with golden trays flinging printed cards in the shape of lotus flower leaves, called sange (散華). The cards came in many colors and had images of the tengu spririts of the shugenja on them. I managed to catch two cards! In the old days the monks would hand out fresh lotus leaves with mystical symbols on them. The leaves would serve as a buddhist “memento mori”, in that they symbolized the death of all things living. These days they are made of paper though and people keep them as good luck charms in the wallets or in the their home altars. I have a little collection of my own by now! At a festival last year I took a photo of very simple paper sange being thrown from the top of a pagoda in Ota Ward in the South of Tokyo.
I still have a few more photos to come, of the main event: the fire walking! Stay tuned!
On the second Sunday of every year a famous festival is held at the foot of Mount Takao in Tokyo’s Hachioji City, the Hiwatari Matsuri (火渡り祭, hiwatari meaning fire walking). It is one of these rare buddhist/shugendo festivals that I am so fond of. The original purpose of the festival was to train and test the shugenja or the warrior monks of the old days. A shugenja is a follower of the shugendo, an ascetic mountain religion focusing on endurance and spiritual awareness. Shugendo is easily the most interesting of the religions of Japan, and I have blogged a little about it before, should you wish to learn more.
A place is prepared for the festival at a small temple usually used to consecrate and bless cars and vehicles. A huge mound of ceda boughs are lined with votive planks donated by lay members of the temple in order to have their prayers part of the ceremony. The area is fenced of and a procession of shugenja of both sexes take up positions around it. As the temple officials enter they perform a short ceremony where individual shugenja leads the officials into the “dojo” (training ground). There are several different groups taking part, all wearing different costumes and religious objects. Both men and women, children and old people take part. Some of the women are nuns in training who shave their heads just like male monks, others are lay members and keep their hair.
The symbols and the meanings of the many hundreds of individual aspects of the ceremony is incredibly complicated and I won’t even try to get into anything other than superficial description of what is going on, but it is an amazing ceremony to see, incredibly rich in tradition, culture and mysticism. That these ceremonies have survived into the 21st century is fantastic and we should be grateful for people who dedicate their lives to preserving these fragile links to our past.
More photos, more flames and more mountain monks to come in the post tomorrow! I took most of these photos with my 50-500mm Sigma lens, the “Widow Maker”. It gets to be about half a meter long when fully extended and I am afraid that the poor foreign student standing next to me managed to smack into it a few times as she turned her head. The crowds were immense and the only reason I could get these photos was because I had travelled there at dawn and spent several hours in the cold keeping my spot!
The Suwa Taisha is not only one of the oldest shrine in Japan it is also the home of one of the most (in)famous festivals that takes place once every six years, the Onbashira Matsuri. In the festival huge tree trunks are cut down, transported and raised again in a series of huge ceremonies. Very few festivals pass without one or more gruesome accidents though. The next Onbashira festival takes place in 2016. A few of the large trees used in the ceremonies are exhibited at the shrine, and there are a few more in the city (including one right in front of the train station).
The shrine is also popular with pregnant women praying for a safe birth, who can dedicate a steel ladle at the shrine with their prayers.
If you are ever traveling through Nagano Prefecture this shrine is a must see. There are so many things that I missed on my first visit here, I hope I can go back soon again!
In Nagano Prefecture, way to the north of Tokyo I visited Suwa City and their Suwa Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest shrines, having been founded sometime in the 8th century A.D. It’s age and status meant that is was once one of the holiest places in country. Most shrines have a building called Honden that actually enshrines the kami or God that it honors, but these very old shrines usually do not have a Honden, in this case it is because the kami of the shrine is the mountain itself. Taisha means that is is a grand shrine, in this case the head shrine of well over 25 000 shrines all over the country. There is plenty of archaeological evidence for the Suwa area to have been associated with a very prosperous and powerful dynasty due to the discovery of richly decorated pottery unlike other places in the country. This could explain the mythological and cultural reason why this shrine became so important.
The shrine has plenty of details to discover, in addition to being very beautiful. One of the fountains where you perform the ritual washing before approaching the shrine is actually a natural hot spring and the thick cloud of steams are probably enough to convince visitors to wash their hands and mouth in colder waters (see the last photo). As you approach the shrine you encounter a massive cedar tree called the Neiri Sugi which is believed to be 700 or 800 years old. During ushimitsu (丑三つ), the hour of the ox, it is said to go to sleep and if you stand beneath it at that hour (between two and half past two in the morning) you can hear the tree snore. Fallen branches of the trees are popular with young parents, as it is said that a brew of the branches from this tree will stop them from crying in the night.
The Suwa Taisha, like the Izumo Taisha, has several massive Shimenawa decorating the shrine buildings. The shimenawa binds the holy space together and acts as a guard agains evil spirits. Apart from shrines, you will often see these ropes around especially holy objects, stones and trees that often attracts spirits (both good and bad). I assume the weight of the biggest shimenawa at Suwa Taisha is about a ton at least.