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!
If you are around in Tokyo or Saitama at the end of the month I recommend you visit the grand Kawagoe Haru Matsuri, the spring festival held in old Kawagoe town every year (well, for the last 24 years anyway). There’s a parade of musketmen firing real muskets (absolutely the loudest noise you will ever hear), ladder acrobatics, and traditional dances and performances by local kids, like these two young taiko drummers performing in the rain at last year’s festival. They were a huge hit with the older ladies performing a traditional dance around them! It’s great to see that the younger generations are picking up on the old traditions. These photos are from last year’s spring festival but I am sure this one will be similar (there isn’t much official information online yet, but the opening event will be held on the 29th of March and then there will be something every weekend until the beginning of May).
At Yushima Tenjin’s Umematsuri (Plum blossom festival) I got totally carried away with the fun and energy of the crowd carrying the omikoshi around the shrine and took loads of pictures. During summer I typically go to see one or two festivals every week but in the winter there are so few opportunities to see them. The festival was in honor of the plum blossoms, which indeed made a brave appearance in the cold rain, white and bright pink ones. Come summer there will probably be hundreds of kilos of plums ready for the harvest here, hopefully turned into pickled sour plums or umeshu, the super sweet plum liquor.
After having completed its rounds around the shrine, the omikoshi is carried towards the main torii, or gate. The torii of Yushima Tenjin is very special, as it is made in bronze rather than the more common wood (or even concrete). It is also the oldest bronze torii in Tokyo, dating back to 1667. How it survived World War 2 fundraising campaigns and firebombing raids I have no idea. The shrine is also popular with students hoping for admission to the university of their choice. I found one ema, or votive plaque, where some talented person had offered a prayer to get into Yokohama national university. Good luck!
Having been presented to the priests and gods at the main shrine, the omikoshi is then carried around the shrine to the stage at the back where it is hoisted one last time for the people. I was lucky and got a good spot to take photos from. As many people as possible are crammed around the omikoshi to help it get to where it is supposed to go, but as you can see all those people doesn’t make for very much accuracy in movement! The omikoshi almost rammed the director of the group but he was kept up by other supporters with a firm grip on his belt. The omikoshi which can weigh as much as a ton, is much easier to handle with fewer people, as you can see in the last few photos when the ceremony is over and the omikoshi is taken back to its resting place at the side of the shrine.
I can hardly wait for the summer festivals to start up again!