Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (14) Japan’s firewalking festivals

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 16, 2007

FUNNY AS IT MAY SOUND, taking off your shoes and socks and walking across hot coals—known as firewalking—has become a well-known feature of motivational and management seminars. Motivational expert Anthony Robbins teaches it, and companies send their management personnel to seminars to learn how to do it in the hope it will boost their productivity.

In fact, it’s turned into a big business. Tolly Burkan is the guru of the firewalking movement in the United States, as he taught Robbins and the rest how to do it. He’ll teach you, too, if you pony up $US 3,500 for a three-day retreat.


But you don’t have to spend a small fortune to test your mettle. Firewalking is the central feature of several festivals held throughout Japan, and everyone from toddlers to grannies get involved. Every year on the second Sunday in March, people perform the firewalking ritual with the monks at the Yakuoin Temple in Hachioji near Tokyo to celebrate the arrival of spring. The monks have been doing it for centuries, and they’ve invited members of the public to join for the past 50 years.

For more details on their firewalking festival, here’sthis report on the 2000 event by Yuki Yanagi. Yuki’s not a native speaker, but her short article is easy to read and covers all the bases.

If you want to see photos of the entire ceremony, I highly recommend this series of 37 excellent pictures taken in 2005. There are no explanations of the individual pictures, but none are really needed. (If you read Yuki’s explanation first, you’ll know why they’re shooting arrows.)

There’s an even better set of photos on this Japanese-language site. If you can’t read the Japanese, just look for the rotating blue arrow at the bottom of the page. The ceremony photos are in four sections, so all you have to do is click on each one in sequence. This site has photos of the walkers rubbing salt on their feet before stepping out. Salt has long been used as a purification symbol in Japanese religious ceremonies, and it also may help dry out the feet, which is the key to a successful firewalk.

Meanwhile, last Monday night (the 9th), another firewalk was held in Kami, Kochi Prefecture at Konoitasan Fudomyo’o, with 100 people walking barefoot across hot coals in a ceremony to prevent illness and disaster. The photo shows a frightened young girl being helped across the coals at the event.


The Kochi festival dates back several hundred years and was begun to honor the Emperor Antoku, who died in 1185 at the age of seven during a naval battle at Dannoura during the Taira-Minamoto War. (His grandmother jumped off a burning ship holding the boy sovereign.) The firewalk is held twice a year, in spring and fall, and has been conducted in its present form for about 60 years.

Parishoners clad in traditional white clothing get the festivities underway by lighing the fire, which uses cypress logs and leaves as fuel. When it starts to blaze, they circle it and chant sutras, and already in our mind’s eye we’re not in Kansas anymore. The participants then throw into the fire small wooden tablets on which they have written their wishes–similar to three coins in the fountain, except there’s fire instead of water–and when these have been burned, they get ready for some barefootin’. One Kochi City woman who has been hoofing it across the embers every year for the past 30 years says it’s not hot at all if you become detached first. (Mushin in Japanese)

I don’t want to ruin your experience, but if you think it’s difficult to do, you might want to check out the more prosaic explanation here at Wikipedia. If nothing else, you’ll save $3,500.

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