Hiwatari Sai, also known as the Fire Walking Festival, took place this Sunday near Takao-san, one of Tokyo's most famous mountains. I have gone there a couple of times before, the routes there are quite easy and have a special type of mountainous nature with dark green and huge cryptomeria.
But one of the most interesting things about Takao is that you can visit Takao-san Yakuo-in, an old Buddhist temple with yamabushi, a special type of Buddhist warrior monks. Every year in second Sunday of March they hold a festival where they walking barefoot across the embers of burning wood to stay for world peace, health and safety and cleans themselves of the evil spirits. I heard about this matsuri many times before, but always came to Japan too late to have the opportunity to see it for myself.
Every matsuri includes tents selling classic Japanese street food like yakitori, okonomiyaki or chocolate bananas, and of course you can see a firefighters here — although everything is under control, nobody can be sure it's 100% safety.
The festival starts with a group of chanting monks make their way into the primary event area, situated in a car park adjacent to the main road. Subsequently, the monks perform a series of rituals and performances, including warding off malevolent spirits using different weapons, inflicting punishment upon themselves by whipping their bodies with branches dipped in boiling water, and reciting a lengthy register of names of individuals who have paid for the privilege.
As for me, this ritual music is so hypnotizing that I can listen to it for hours, and it really gives a boost of energy for hours of stay. We arrived here 2 hours before the start and were lucky enough to get a seat on top of a small hill right in front of the arena.
Yamabushi, the Shugendō mountain priests, have played a significant role in Japan's history. Their traditional duty involved guiding disciples on a rigorous path of self-discipline and self-awareness up steep mountain trails. These warrior priests were instrumental in helping people navigate the challenges of life through their teachings and practices, and their legacy continues to influence Japanese culture and spirituality to this day.
I can say over and over that I am so obsessed with their traditional clothing. When you see her, you can understand where many movie and game costumes come from, because their style is simply inspiring.
Despite their appearance as peaceful mountain hermits and their deep religious practices, the yamabushi were highly proficient in martial arts and skilled warriors in their own right. Secluded in the mountains, the yamabushi had ample opportunity to hone their combat skills, which included various armed and unarmed techniques. While their specific martial art is unclear, some sources suggest that sumo was one of their areas of expertise.
I was especially impressed by this woman whose movements were full of dignity.
Their mastery of combat was not limited to their own practice; the yamabushi were also influential in shaping other classes of Japanese warriors. Notably, their skillsets overlapped with those of the ninja warriors, and it is believed that the yamabushi were a key influence on the development of ninja techniques. The yamabushi's training in martial arts allowed them to defend themselves against potential attackers and pursue their religious practices in the mountains with confidence and discipline.
Every part of the ritual is so cinematic that it can be seen even from a big distance.
This monk fired his bow from each of the four corners of the arena right into the crowd, and some were lucky enough to catch the arrows.
And finally two monks take fire from the altar with special torches to set the branches on fire.
There are VIP seats in front of the arena, and I can guess they felt the real heat.
After the pre-ceremony, a stack of square fern leaves and wood is ignited, generating intense heat for around 1-2 minutes until the fern branches are consumed. Monks then extinguish the flames by dousing them with buckets of water before spreading the resulting embers to create two strips.
Through these strips, barefoot participants walk while chanting, engaging in a spiritual regeneration and purification process known as the fire ritual or agni pariksha. This practice is believed to symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth, allowing individuals to release negative energies and move forward with renewed energy and purpose.
The smell and crack of burning woods were so satisfying.
The flames raged uncontrollably, emanating an intense heat that caused evident pain on the faces of some of the monks who were standing too close to the fire.
Innumerable small, slender wooden sticks containing prayers and blessings were cast into the flames, further fueling the fire.
Amidst the chaos, there were two monks standing by a cauldron of boiling water. They removed their shirts and dipped a massive pile of branches into the seething broth. Then, they began whipping themselves with the scalding branches, causing severe burns on their skin.
The priest (or senior monk?) walks through the fire first, followed by the others.
The monks are followed by visitors. The heat is almost gone, and it's not at all dangerous.
I also took part in the ceremony. Of course, I wanted the coals to be hot, but walking through the thick smoke while monks were chanting was unforgettable. It seems like something really has changed inside of me.
It was very touching to see how they helped the children.
The monks chanted loudly for several hours, I can't imagine how much practice they need for this.
After the ritual me and my friends felt so light and happy that it seems we were smiling (and sometimes sleeping, and sometimes both) all the way back to Shinjuku.