Mount Takao – Hiwatari Matsuri
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!