Tokyobling's Blog

More Ladder Acrobatics in Kawagoe

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on April 7, 2014

More of the fantastic ladder acrobatics as performed by Saitama prefecture firefighters at the Kawagoe Harumatsuri (Kawagoe City Spring Festival) opening day at the end of March 2014. The ladder is simple and handmade out of hemp rope and bamboo poles. The only thing that keeps it upright is the support of the hooks and bills applied by the team members on the ground. The method allowed firefighting teams in the Edo period of Japan to quickly and safely raise the ladders anytime and anywhere in matter of seconds, regardless of conditions. Ladders were not used only to scale walls or buildings, but also as mobile observation platforms to find fires and routes in the densely packed wooden cities of Japan. The traditions are being kept alive by the modern firefighters although in those days the positions were often hereditary and passed down through special families of samurai or commoners tasked with keeping an eye on fires. The official system that we can see in these performances was introduced in 1720.

Tokyo, or Edo as it was known then, was famous for its many fires. People in other parts of Japan even made fun of Edo by coining the saying 火事と喧嘩は江戸の花 (“Quarrels and fires are the flowers of Edo”, in Japanese to be the flower of something is the be the pride and joy, the finest and the best). During the 267 years of the Edo period (1601-1867) there were 49 massive fires in the city, ten times as many as in the other large cities of Japan. If you include smaller firest there were a couple of thousand during the Edo period. The number of fires increased as the population growth and the inability of the Shogunate government (the feudal ruler of Japan) to handle the growth of the city is part of the reason why the Emperor was able to regain government control of the country in 1868. Without the many fires of Edo this blog could have been called Edobling. The greatest fire of Edo was in 1657 when 107 000 people were killed (about one fifth of the total population). Compared to the 8 official deaths of the great fire of London 1666 it seems even larger. The worst months of the year for fires was in January, February and March, when strong winds, cold and dry weather mean that even small household accidents could easily sweep the entire city if left unchecked. People were so afraid of these fires that many men who had relations outside of the city sent their wives to the countryside in these three months.

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Kawagoe Ladder Acrobatics – Harumatsuri

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on April 3, 2014

Of all the photographic subject available in this fantastic country few beats the ladder acrobatics for photogenics! These teams of gravity defying fire fighters are really something to see. I took saw the Saitama prefecture Kawagoe city team at the Kawagoe spring festival opening last week. In the old days samurai families tasked with fighting fires in the cities of Japan developed a technique of quickly and safely raising ladders using not much beyond bamboo, ropes and hooks. The bravest would then race up the ladder and quickly be able to locate the source of the fire and the direction it was likely to travel in. A low tech solution to problems faced by firefighters in many cultures. To keep their skill up the teams would practice on the ladders in a form of acrobatics that is now the “hashigonori engi” (梯子乗り演技). There are different traditions but most of them center on a dozen core positions centered around where on the ladder they are performed (up, middle or moving downwards). Most teams follow the traditional 69 positions although very few of them are every used be the individual teams. Can you spot the position called the “sea turtle”?

There are even some extremely scary looking two man positions that I have never seen in real life (not to be confused with bigger ladder teams where two or three men do their own routines on different parts of the ladder at the same time). I took so many photos of their three different performances on this day so I will a second bunch of photos for later. Enjoy!

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Mount Takao Fire Walking Festival

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on March 12, 2014

The third and final part of the grand Hiwatari Matsuri, or fire walking festival, at Tokyo’s holy Mount Takao last weekend. After having spent quite some time trying to contain the fire and dousing it with clear water and burning the votive sticks, the shugenja would line up for the final fire walking test. Before that two of them would take part in a ritual cleanings ceremony involving showering themself with near boiling water which they beat out of cauldron with a bundle of tree branches. After that the shugenja and lay followers of the shugendo sect would start the fire walking, first stepping on a mound of pure white salt which has a further purification symbolism.

There were several shugenja performing the ceremony and when they were done they took up positions around the dojo to chant prayers while the ordinary people started the fire walking. In the last photo you can see the what it all looked like after several hours into the ceremony. The line snaking around the dojo continued up onto the hill where I took the photo, went around the hill and down onto the other side. By the time normal people get to do the fire walking any remaining embers would have died out and there should be barely any heat left at all. The significance in the ceremony is not the physical challenge though, it is the ritual purification that is the important part. I didn’t stay to see all the ordinary folks performing the ceremony but the shugenja must have spent many hours of continuos chanting and drumming!

Standing so close to many shugenja (a rare treat!) gave me a grand opportunity to take plenty of photos of their gear close up. I have included some of the photos in this post.

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Hiwatari – Fire Festival at Takaosan

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on March 11, 2014

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!

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