Here is an article I wrote for Global Voices of Japan.
The Shingu Fire Festival
‘Tanomude! Tanomude! Tanomude!’ This is what you will hear as the sun goes down in Shingu City every year on February 6th.
As the winter darkness falls over the city, the sweet aroma of ‘amazake’ (sweet white sake) fills the chilly air and the streets slowly fill with over 2000 men and boys of all ages getting their spirits up before joining in the Oto Matsuri (Fire Festival).
This 1400 year old festival is imbued with primordial energies and is where boys come to become men and where men become boys and the soul is purified by the fires of 2000 flaming torches.
Many men will write their wishes on these wooden torches with wooden streamers that will soon be lighting up the darkness under Gotobiki Iwa after scaling up a steep stone pathway halfway up Chihogamine Mountain or what is also called Mt. Gongen.
Like the sound of an ancient infantry approaching the sound of ‘Tanomude! Tanomude! Tanomude!’ gets louder and louder as more and more very excited men and boys fill the streets and more amazake is consumed.
Roaming up and down almost every street on their way to do Sanshamairi (paying respect to Asuka Jinja, Hayatama Taisha, and Myoshinji) groups of men and boys pass each other and strike each other’s torches, often a little wildly and violently, with a loud thump shouting ‘Tanomude! Tanomude!’
I have to admit that my first experience of this festival was a little intimidating being one of the few ‘hakujin’ (white men) on the streets.
The thought did cross my mind that my ‘gaijin’ head might stick out nicely as a target for an overly excited Noboriko or two. Indeed, for the inattentive, ‘gaijin’ foreigners or Japanese alike, who inadvertently find their heads in between a couple of swinging torches, a little blood may flow before even reaching Kamikura.
Most ‘Noboriko’ are very peaceful but in such a testosterone filled festival there are a few boys and men who drink a little too much amazake and get a little sloppy with their aim when striking together their unlit torches. So, if you join in just keep a vigilant eye out for swinging torches and you will be fine.
The atmosphere is electric and charged with potent male energy and the excitement builds the closer we get to the Kamikura Shrine. Once we finish winding through the streets we make our way to lower Torii (shrine gate) and start our ascent up the steep stone steps to gather with the other Noboriko. After about 45 minutes all 2000 of us are corralled into a small area behind the shrine gate waiting for it to be thrown open.
The feeling is quite exhilarating to be confined with 2000 other ‘well lubricated’ men with flames, ashes, and smoke burning your eyes. I am sure for some the experience can be a little frightening and intimidating.
From a small spark of flint to a small flame eventually 2000 torches are gradually lit. When the gate flies open there is a mad rush down the steep steps to the bottom where ambulances and police are waiting…just in case!
Thankfully, in this relatively dangerous festival, you can pretty much choose your level of excitement and danger. If you want a quiet time you can attract that energy to you. If you want to be in the thick of the ‘male energy’ you can choose that too and drinking a little more amazake can help you along in that regard.
Most people join in with another group of men when participating and the level of male energy you experience may depend on the group you join in with.
The first time I joined in the festival it was with a group of Aikido practitioners, i.e. ‘martial artists’. These were young strong men doing martial arts twice a day and who generally like being at the centre of all the excitement. That experience was quite exciting as we were all gathered the close to the front gate where all the more competitive and energetic young men tend to gather. The torches were flying, fights were breaking out, and the blood was trickling from a few brows, all part of the experience. Luckily I escaped with no damage and enjoyed being in the front of the pack as the ‘Kaishaku’ holding the gates closed let them fly open and we began running down the mountain at breakneck speed.
I must emphasize that these 800 year old stone steps are so steep that grown men find them scary to WALK down. Here you have 2000 men most of whom are half drunk, or completely drunk, RUNNING feverishly down this mountain – hence, the ambulance and police presence.
Another time I joined the festival the group was a little more relaxed. That time we slowly made our way to the back and perched ourselves high on a rock overlooking the pandemonium. That is where kids, babies, older men, and those just wishing a more relaxed experience gravitate.
On this day all the ‘Noboriko’ dress up in ‘Shiroshozoku’, a traditional white uniform with a huge straw rope wrapped around their waist, and a white head cover to keep the coming fire off their heads. Baby boys are wrapped up on the backs of the men for their first journey up the mountain.
In Japan the dead are traditionally dressed in white clothing and white is generally considered a color of purity and cleanliness. Another name for this is ‘Shinishozoku’ or ‘death cloth’.
I was told that the Noboriko dress up in this ‘death cloth’ because the Oto Matsuri (Fire Festival) is symbolic of a kind of death of the old and rebirth of the new.
Each year Noboriko ascend the stone steps and leave ‘konoyo’ or ‘this world’ at the base of the mountain and enter into ‘Anoyo’ or ‘the other world’ at Kamikura Shrine on the side of Mt. Gongen and emerge out of the flames on the mountain symbolizing ‘yomigaeri’ which can be translated as ‘revival’ or ‘resurrection’.
Only white food like tofu, white pickles, rice, can be eaten, only white drinks like amazake can be consumed, and the men must abstain from sexual activity at the very least during the day of the festival. I was told this abstinence was of longer duration in ancient times but these days at least one day is the minimum.
I remember starting to do an Om chant on one of my more relaxed Oto Matsuri experiences. After a few minutes my friends started to join in and it felt like we were creating a sound wave that flowed over the whole group of 2000. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed as though the crowd was becoming quieter and a kind of sacred peace was settling in over the shrine precincts especially in the back area where we were sitting.
During this festival I felt a sense of oneness with my fellow Noboriko with no boundaries of culture or nationality and no discrimination. I also felt at one with the mountain and sacred natural deity that resides on Mr. Gongen and Kamikura.
When you participate in this festival I believe you have one of the few opportunities to really feel what it is like to be Japanese and to enter into the spirit of ‘Real Japan’.
I have to say that this was one of the most memorable experiences of the last 24 years of living in Japan and highly recommend it whether you are young or old, strong or weak, Japanese or non-Japanese.