Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (98): Leading the people to happiness

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 6, 2008

A LOOK AT THE PHOTO accompanying this post might lead one to believe that the Yata Fire Festival, held at the end of August in Tanabe, Wakayama, dates from many centuries ago. While the women in the picture are wearing costumes from the Heian period (794-1185), the origins of the festival itself are quite recent. In fact, the first one was held in 1990 and took its inspiration from the Nanki Kumano Taikenhaku, a local exposition.

Unlike other fire festivals, this event does not feature a huge bonfire. It gets underway about 6:30 in the evening at the Kumano Hongu Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Tanabe. From there, a procession with about 70 members walks from the current site of the shrine to the former site at Oyu-no-Hara. The women carry candles in bamboo holders, while the men carry a stylized steel mikoshi, or portable shrine, with a burning torch inside. (The men are also dressed in a period costume that looks very much like the garments of a Shinto priest.)

The main shrine path and a large torii still remain at Oyu-no-Hara, and the path is lined with another 250 candles placed in Japanese-style holders. There is a Shinto ceremony when the procession arrives, which is followed by a taiko drum performance.

There’s nothing like the big beat of the drum to stir up the blood. After they’ve finished pounding the taiko, two dances are performed around the mikoshi. The first is called Heaven’s Dance, and is the creation of Raymond Johnson. The second, created by Kawada Kumiko, is called the People’s Dance. This may be the only Shinto-related festival in Japan in which a foreigner was responsible for devising one of the elements.

Reports say that many of the spectators spontaneously join in the dancing—probably the second dance—and that they become very boisterous. Then the whole show ends with a fireworks display. Perhaps the organizers called it a fire festival because it starts with the candles and the torch in the procession and ends with fire flowers (the word for fireworks in Japanese) that light up the heavens.

The festival is named after the yatagarasu, a mythical sacred magpie that was reputed to lead people to the proper path. The organizers say they created the event in that spirit to lead people to happiness. That magpie had three legs, and the unique mikoshi was built with three legs to symbolize the bird.

Who knows whether this is how the folks in Tanabe find happiness, but considering the carousing that goes on at most Japanese festivals, they probably have a great time looking for it!

Try this page for some more photos, including some closer views of the mikoshi.

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