Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (45): Burn, baby, burn!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2007

THE ELEMENTAL POWER OF FIRE casts a spell over our primeval natures, fascinating and frightening us to the extent that it has sometimes been the object of worship. It should be no surprise, therefore, that fire is the central theme for an entire sub-genre of Japanese festivals.

The lengths to which the parishioners of the Atago Shinto shrine in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, will go to pay reverence to the instinctive urges within us is particularly impressive.

The shrine’s fire festival has been held continuously since the Edo period. It started sometime after 1615, but no one is sure exactly when. The event itself is not complicated, but it is remarkable nonetheless. About 5:00 in the afternoon one day last month, about 50 men dressed in happi coats assembled to haul a huge torch up the steep hillside of Mt. Nochise to the shrine near the summit.

When they say huge torch, they aren’t kidding. The torch, if that is what one can call it, is 70 centimeters in diameter, three meters long, and weighs about 200 kilograms. It takes the men an hour of sweating and grunting in the summer heat to get that bruiser to the top of the mountain, 168 meters above the ground. Eight men do the actual carrying, and another 20 help by pulling it with ropes.

Once they reach the top, the real fun begins–they get to light it! The shrine’s guardian deity is the fire divinity, so the torch is set ablaze as an offering in supplication for safety against fire, illnesses, and disasters.

People sure can come up with a lot of reasons for enjoying themselves!

Japan is fortunate in that it has a smaller population of armchair meta-critics than some Western countries, who would find or create some postmodern excuse to disparage the event. Instead, the local residents gather to applaud the men and encourage them in their efforts to carry that load to the top of the mountain. I wonder how many of us would be willing to engage in backbreaking physical labor for an hour in the service of tradition.

Still, the modern guys have reportedly lightened their load. Today’s torch weighs about 200 kilograms, but in the past it used to be half again as heavy.

This year, the passage of a nearby typhoon brought strong winds and some rain, so the group lit only part of the torch, which was a minor disappointment. But the men weren’t about to let all their efforts go for naught. They promised to return when the weather was better and light the torch properly.

Those fellas lugged that lumber all the way to the top of the mountain, so you can be sure they kept their promise and returned a few days later, set it on fire, and watched it burn.

I’ll bet they had a great time doing it, too.

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