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.
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).