Tokyobling's Blog

Mount Takao – Hiwatari Matsuri

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on March 10, 2014

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!


11 Responses

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  1. amadl said, on March 10, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Quoting from your previous post about shugenja: …I would imagine that they are very fit.

    They Look very fit indeed ^^


  2. Emily Cannell said, on March 10, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Amazing shots!! Worth the cold wait- for us anyway!


  3. […] highly recommend reading up on shugendo (and looking at the gorgeous pictures) on Tokyobling’s blog, but for those of you who’d like the Clif Notes(TM) version of what to expect when you go to […]


  4. Jonelle Patrick said, on March 10, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    I was too far away to see the gorgeous detail of the robes – as always, you captured the beauty and spirit of the festival perfectly!


    • tokyobling said, on March 13, 2014 at 12:23 am

      Thank you for the kind comment Jonelle! Yes, the front row was pretty crowded early on in the day…


  5. pk1154 said, on March 10, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you for be willing to wait in the cold!

    (This weekend we attended the members’ preview for a new special exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, “Samurai: Beyond the Sword” and a chance to see some stunning Japanese pieces that the DIA does not, at present, normally have room to display.)


    • tokyobling said, on March 13, 2014 at 12:24 am

      Thank you for the comment pk1154! (^-^) Good to hear that old Detroit is still alive and kicking despite all the doom and gloom we see in the media! (^-^)


  6. Shelli@howsitgoingeh? said, on March 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Fantastic portraits as always! I love all the faces! Shugendo! Fascinating – I read your other post about it, but I’m going to do more reading up on it! I’ve never heard about it before – I always learn from your posts! Thank you!


    • tokyobling said, on March 13, 2014 at 12:25 am

      Thanks Shelli! Yes, it is such an interesting religion. I envy their discipline and fortitude!


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