This time of year is a particularly good one for the slightly more quirkier of the many, many festivals that take place in Japan throughout the year. A great deal of the ones featured in the recent Tokyo Fox ‘Top 10……Quirky Japanese Festivals‘ post take place between February and April and last Sunday my wife and I attended (and indeed participated!) Hiwatari Sai a.k.a. the fire-walking festival in Takao.
This festival is basically a cleansing and purification event where monks offer prayers for the usual things like world peace, protection from misfortune and good health. Starting at 1pm this one certainly took a while to get going. You could even say it was a slow-burner! In fact, the chanting of a few thousand names was rather tedious and long overdrawn. Even the man on the mic had to take the odd breather from reading out such a long list of names. Presumably these were the names of the many people who had written their prayers and blessings on wooden sticks. At some point before or after that (I can’t remember!) an archer fired off some things into the crowd in all directions as the anticipation was building up.
As the pomp and ceremony went on and on my legs were starting to get a bit tired (I had already climbed Mount Takao before this event) but finally after about an hour the specially constructed high mound of fir trees taking centre stage was lit resulting in a spectacularly, massive cloud of dust, flames and smoke (as one would probably expect!) which rejuvenated a crowd who were starting to get a bit restless.
Thin wooden sticks with prayers and blessings written on them were added from time to time to the flames and some portable shrines were paraded around the fire as it burned away for around 30 minutes. Some water was poured on the fire and it was beaten down a bit before two routes going through it were eventually made out for the monks to walk through. Buddhist monks walk on the fire to burn away their sins and pray for protection against sickness and calamity and for safety within the family.
Once the monks had done their bit whilst the embers were still hot the audience was able to quite literally follow in their footsteps and that was an offer we simply couldn’t turn down. It all happened fairly quickly and having taken my hiking boots and socks off and rolled up my trousers we were walking across the now semi-cooled fire pit.
As I neared the starting point (where two monks tell you when to begin your walk and pretty much push you off!) the smoke in my eyes became almost unbearable and I could hardly see where I was walking as I made my way over the extinguished fire. It wasn’t quite the fire-walking style that I used to see daredevils do on TV as I was growing up in the 1980’s but nevertheless it was still pretty cool to do it. I did think that it would be much hotter and more similar to walking on boiling hot tiles around a swimming pool which have been under burning hot sunshine all day. I had brought a towel with me as I heard that it may be possible to walk across the fire but I never really believed it would actually happen.
How to get there: Takasosanguchi station is on the Keio Line and about 50 minutes away (390 yen) from Shinjuku station. The fire walking festival takes place on the second Sunday in March each year at the Takaosan Yakuoin Temple. It is located at the open area in front of Kitoden Hall and is a five minute walk from the station.
Click on the links below to read about other mountains which can be done in day trips: