Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (72): Ridding the world of evil with fire

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 23, 2008

SPRING CLEANING FOR MOST PEOPLE involves washing the windows and cleaning the house to get ready for warm weather. For some people, however, spring cleaning is a time to drive away the demons for spiritual renewal—and they’ve been reenacting the ritual for more than 900 years.

That’s what happens at the Takisan-ji Oni Matsuri, or the Demon Festival of the Takisan Buddhist temple, which was held in Okazaki, Aichi, on the 16th. The festival is held close to 7 February, which was the old lunar New Year. Apart from the spectacle, the festival is also noteworthy for two reasons. First, it is held at a Buddhist temple–unlike most Japanese festivals, which are associated with Shinto shrines. And second, it was started by one of the first shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

That was early in the Kamakura period (1185—1333), when he had established what is now known as the Kamakura Shogunate. He offered prayers in supplication for peace and a bountiful harvest. That later evolved into ceremonies in which large torches are used to expel demons.

This is not a game played with matchsticks. The ceremonies date from a time when people believed in evil and demons, and knew that strong measures were required to keep them away. In this case, it means noise, movement, and a lot of fire. Contemporary humankind may have evolved into an affable domesticated herd, but the intensity of a more primitive—and more compelling–version of ourselves survives here.

Several ceremonies are conducted as part of the overall event, but the one that attracts the most interest is the Fire Festival. The temple lights are extinguished and three demons wearing masks representing a grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild enter the corridor of the main hall. The role of the grandfather is played by a 42-year-old man, the grandmother by a 25-year-old man, and the grandchild by a 12-year-old boy.

Then, about 50 men clad in white appear. They are all born in one of the years that corresponds to the current year of the Chinese zodiac, which this year is the Year of the Rat. Clutching 2.5 meter-long torches, they swing them about wildly while performing a frenzied dance in the darkness to drive out the evil spirits. They have inherited the spirit of their ancestors, for whom failure in this enterprise was not an option.

The sheer length of traditions that have been maintained in Japan is a constant source of wonder. Minamoto no Yoritomo ruled during the final years of the 12th century. He was a contemporary of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Takisan-ji was already a venerable institution when he started the festival–the building’s foundations date to the latter half of the 7th century. The story goes that a priest who had been living as a hermit in the mountains nearby built the temple on the orders of the Emperor Tenmu, who reigned from 673 to 686 AD.

Though Minamoto-no-Yoritomo might be unfamiliar as a name to people outside of Japan, the image of the man himself is not. Here’s a link to his picture; reproductions of this scroll are sold as wall decorations in the West.

And here’s what he wrought: someone captured this year’s festival on YouTube, which you can see here. Both the images and the sound are slightly blurred, but that only serves to emphasize just how powerful the effect of either witnessing or taking part in this festival must be.

Thanks to Ponta for the link!

7 Responses to “Matsuri da! (72): Ridding the world of evil with fire”

  1. Ken said


    This is not important in this topic but Sakano-ue no Tamuramaro, who was appointed on 797, is the first shougun in Japan as the same name of occipation with Kamakura and Edo government.

  2. ampontan said

    Thanks, Ken, I fixed it!

  3. bender said

    I thought about it, too. Technically, Ken is correct. But it was Yoritomo who made the title “shogun” mean “king of the samurais”, and samurais obtained autonomy under him for the first time. So, I think Ampontan is right, too. First samurai king = Minamotono Yoritomo.

  4. ponta said

    Kinekosa festival fortold Excellent luck this year for Japan. Can’t believe

  5. ampontan said

    Ponta: I know about that one but thanks for reminding me. I’ll put that up soon!

  6. Martin F said

    Your festival posts should be collected into a book. There is a lot to learn about the “Japanese character” here. Just the other day, the guy who cuts my hair told me he is part of the omikoshi autumn matsuri in my town, complete with drum, a mask and whatnot.

    I asked, “And then you party until dawn?” and he replied: “You bet, that’s the best part”.

  7. ampontan said

    Martin: Thanks! That’s one of my ambitions.

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