Fire walk with me. A closer look at the spectacular Buddhist purification ceremony held yearly at Mount Takao in Tokyo.
Held on the second Sunday of March every year, the hiwatari matsuri or fire-walking festival at Mount Takao is a ceremony of purification known as ogoma. The ceremony is part of the training of Shugendo, a religion unique to Japan that mixes Buddhism and ancient mountain worship.
Practitioners of Shugendo (called yamabushi) prepare a sacred fire and behind the blaze dynamically perform ritual processes that are meant to cleanse misfortunes and pray for world peace, longevity and good health. To finalize the ceremony, the yamabushi monks walk through a path of smoldering embers, followed by worshippers who wish to try fire-walking themselves. It is believed that the spectators who simply watch the ceremony will also receive the benefits.
The procession begins from Takaosan Yakuoin Temple at the foot of Mount Takao. Monks dressed in white walk slowly in single file to the sound of hypnotic chanting.
It’s busy, with a good few thousand in attendance. People are squashed together trying to catch a glimpse, piled up on the side of the hill, so here’s my tip. The trick is to directly follow the procession – and if you time it right, once the last monk enters the fire-walking arena, you will be at the front with a great view.
Some of the elder monks are dressed in more elaborate garb, with a number of them blowing Japanese conch shell horns (horagais) to appease mountain deities.
A 15-ft high mound of fir trees lies waiting to be set alight. The monks will then walk through the red-hot remains. At this point it is quiet bar the sound of the wind. An eagle flies overhead.
The mound catches and start smoking…
Within a matter of seconds the whole thing is ablaze, the wind sending it in every direction. A select few monks are assigned to run out and control the flames, using small pails that they run and back and forth refilling from huge wooden drums.
- By this stage the chanting is in full flow and groups are parading around the fire in unison.
- The flames are untamed, the heat intense. Pain is clearly evident on some of the monks’ faces from being so close to the fire.
Thousands of small, thin wooden sticks holding prayers and blessings are thrown on to the flames, adding fuel to the fire. By this this stage the heat is so intense that the monks’ faces are becoming warped.
Some choose to stand and watch the chaos unfold…
While others sit and oversee proceedings.
In the middle of it all this guy was standing around a cauldron of boiling hot water. He took off his top, dipped a huge pile of branches in the bubbling soup and started whipping himself with it, burning his skin.
Others began to take off their shoes, getting ready to walk across the coals.
The oldest, and evidently most senior monk was the first to go, walking casually and slowly across the burning ashes, unflinching.
The rest soon followed, rubbing their feet in a mound of salt as an act of purification and to help treat blisters caused by the fire.
The Fire Walking Festival takes place at Takaosan Yakuoin Temple (at the open area in front of Kitoden Hall). It’s a three-minute walk from Takaosanguchi Station on the Keio Line, about one hour by train from Shinjuku. Free.
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