Matsuage Torch Lighting Ritual is a fire festival held in August in Hirogawara, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto to pray for commemoration of the souls of ancestors as well as for fire prevention and rich harvest. It originates in the tradition of bonfires offered to the deity of fire on Mt. Atago in the western part of Kyoto. Later it was introduced to the nearby villages by mountain practitioners.
In Matsuage (hurling up) ritual, 1,200 torches are set on fire one after another. The flames of the torches spreading in the darkness are overwhelming. Then at the sign of a drum and gong, men began to hurl up burning torches at mass of dry grass called “Ogasa” fixed atop the 20 m tall pole called “Torogi” made of Japanese cypress wood. As they hurl them up, they twirl them many times to give momentum and leave multiple of circular trails of fire, which is very fantastic. The climax is when Ogasa is set on fire and the Torogi is pulled down to the ground. Numerous fire sparks beautifully soar up into the dark sky.
Himatsuri (the fire festival) of Toba Shinmeisha Shrine in Hazu Town in Aichi Prefecture is known as one of the most extraordinary festivals in Japan, which annually takes place on the second Sunday of February (Traditionally held on January 7th on the old calendar). The exact origin of this festival is unknown today; however, it is estimated that it dates back about 1200 years. It was designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 2004.
Two large torches called “Suzumi,” which are about 5 m tall, are built at the centre of the precinct on the eve of the festival. Inside each massive pile are “Shinboku (holy tree)” and 12 ropes representing the 12 months of the year.
At around 3:00 P.M. on the festival day, the two “Shin-Otoko (holy men),” the men at unlucky age of 25, and the two teams of men, consisting of the residents of the local Toba area and divided into the West “Fukuji (the prosperous land)” and the East “Kanji (the dry land)” run into the ocean to purify their body and mind in the ice cold water.
The festival reaches its climax at around 7:30 in the evening, when the two Shin-Otoko light a fire at the top of the two torches with the traditional “Hiuchi-ishi (fire-striking stone)”. When the torches become great bonfires, the Shin-Otoko and the helpers bravely jump into the flame. The men desperately compete against each other until they take the holy tree and the 12 ropes out and offer them at the altar of the shrine. The sheer sight of brave men is simply overwhelming.
The purpose of the festival is to forecast the climate and the harvest of the coming year. It is said that the victory of the “Fukuji” ensures rain and a good harvest in the mountains, while, if the “Kanji” wins, there will be famine and disaster.
Fireworks are displayed at Shinoda Shrine on May 4 every year for the shrine’s annual festival. This tradition dates back to the Edo period, when villagers made fireworks using potassium nitrate and dedicated the fireworks display to the deity in token of their gratitude for rain.
The fireworks displayed here are the Japanese traditional gimmick fireworks. Sulfur, potassium nitrate and paulownia ashes are mixed together and applied onto the patterns drawn on the cedar board, which is 15 m tall and 25 m wide. It takes more than 1 month to make these fireworks. The patterns are selected from the topics of the year.
At 7:00 P.M., when the Japanese drums are powerfully beaten, the people carrying a large torch come into the shrine precinct and set it up on the ground. At the moment the fireworks are lit at 9:00 P.M., the precinct is covered with smoke and blaze. Small fireworks are shot up in rapid succession with explosive sounds, while swirling fireworks beautifully illuminate the precinct. When they are burned down, fantastic picture fireworks come up among vanishing smoke.
Shinoda Fireworks Festival, Sagicho Festival and Hachiman Festival are generically called the Fire Festival at Omi Hachiman Shrine, which is selected as a national Important Intangible Cultural Property.
The fire festival is held on the 2nd Saturday of January every year at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Moriyama City in Shiga Prefecture. On the same day, another fire festival is held at Katsube Shrine in the city. Both are prefecturally designated as intangible folk cultural properties.
The festivals are based on the story dating back about 800 years. When Emperor Tsuchimikado fell into a critical condition, it turned out that the illness was caused by a huge centipede living in Mt. Mikami. Then Fujiwara no Hidesato shot three arrows at the same time and they hit the huge centipede. Its head fell into the precinct of Sumiyoshi Shrine, the body into Katsube Shrine and the tail onto the ground near Karahashi Bridge in Seta village. The parts of the body were burned down at the places they fell; hereby the festivals are held at the two shrines.
On the morning of the festival day, the Shinto ritual and the arrow shooting ceremony are held at the shrine. Then the huge straw torch is brought into the precinct by men in loincloth in the evening. The torch is about 6 m long and weighs about 40 kg.
The men set the fire to the torch and dance wildly around the blazing fire with the powerful calls of “Heiyu! Heiyu!” which means “May an illness be cured!”
The fire festival is held on the 2nd Saturday of January every year at Katsube Shrine in Moriyama City in Shiga Prefecture. On the same day, another fire festival is held at Sumiyoshi Shrine in the city. Both are prefecturally designated as intangible folk cultural properties.
Katsube Shrine is a historic shrine, which is said to have been founded in 649 by Mononobe no Sukune Hirokuni to enshrine his ancestry deity. During the Warring States period (1493-1573), the shrine thrived under the faithful protection from the Sasaki clan, the governor of Omi province and other powerful daimyos such as the Oda and Toyotomi clans.
At Katsube Shrine, 12 large straw torches in the shape of a huge centipede are provided in the shrine precinct. This is based on a story that, when Fujiwara no Hidesato launched an arrow, the body of a huge centipede fell down from the sky and he burned it down. The torch is about 6 m long and 40 cm in diameter.
After dedicating the offing including holy sake wine, sardine and tofu and offering a prayer to the deity, young men in loincloth receive the holy fire from the altar and set it to all the 12 torches at the same time. Then the men dance wildly around the blazing fire with the powerful calls of “Goyo! Hyoyo!” which means “May a headache be cured!”
Kebesu Festival is a fire festival held at Iwakura Hachiman Shrine in Kunimi-machi, Kunisaki City, Oita Pref. on October 14. The origin of the word “kebesu” is not clear; some say it comes from a phrase in a norito (Shinto prayer) referring to “a boy who kicks fire.” On the festival night, the “Kebesu,” who is wearing a grotesque mask, walks around the precinct, hitting the stick called “Samasuta” with a fan and dashes toward the holy bonfire. Then some men called “Toba” in white costume try to guard the fire and repeatedly fight with Kebesu for fire. Toba run after the spectators with burning fern in their hands. It is said that if the sparks fall on you, you will be good in health throughout the year. The festival is designated as a prefecture’s Intangible Folk Cultural Property. This is one of the few unique festivals in Japan.
Fire Festival held at Matsuzawayama Komyoin Temple in Marumori Town, Miyagi Prefecture, is a festival that brings the tradition of Shugendo to the present day. Marumori Town is located in the southernmost part of Miyagi Prefecture. The town is surrounded by the Abukuma mountains and blessed with bountiful nature. This quiet town boasts a lot of historical and cultural heritage.
The fire festival held at Komyoin Temple on April 29 every year is a Shugendo ritual, in which mountain practitioners and worshippers walk through the burning fire to purify their sins, evil deeds, diseases and bad luck. The ritual is said to have been introduced by the mountain practitioners in Mt. Chokai.
When the sun set in the evening, the Goma fire stage built at the center of the purified zone is set on fire and glowing flames blaze up into the night sky. The Goma fire is surrounded by mountain practitioners, who sit still and chant mantras.
When the fire burns down and ashes are flattened, the mountain practitioners start to walk on the burning ashes. After that, general worshippers walk on the ashes. As it is dangerous, they walk in complete seriousness.
Shirahama Shrine, or Ikonahime no Mikoto Shrine, located in Shimoda City at the southernmost end of Izu Peninsula is the oldest shrine in the Izu area. The enshrined deities are Ikonahime no Mikoto and Mishima Daimyojin with the accompanying deities of Mime, Wakamiya and Tsurugi no Miko.
According to the legend, the shrine was founded 2400 years ago by Mishima Daimyojin himself. When he traveled on Kuroshio Current and landed on Izu Peninsula, he adopted an advice from his attendants, Mime, Wakamiya and Tsurugi no Miko, and decided to reside in Shirahama and got married to Ikonahime no Mikoto, the princess of Kamo Shrine.
At Hitachi Festival held at the end of October, the shrine priests set fire on the torches placed on the beach to let all the deities on Izu Seven Islands know of the start of the biggest event of the year. After offering a branch of a sacred tree to the gods, fireworks are shot up into the sky. When all the torches are going to burn out, big fireworks are displayed. On the next day, the precinct is bustled with visitors and stall venders. The dedications of the Shirahama Daiko drum performance and the Sanbaso Dance (an intangible cultural property of Shimoda City) are open to the public on this day.