Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao
Who can resist the opportunity to do a bit of firewalking? Once a year, they actually let you join in, at the Hiwatari Matsuri, just an hour outside of Shinjuku Station at Mt. Takao.
Get there early, because the festivities start with a grand parade of ascetic mountain monks from all over Japan, and you’ll want to nab a good place to watch and take pictures.
But first, you might want to buy a goma-gi to toss on the fire and cure what ails you. Purchase one of these sacred sticks for ¥200, then write your name and age on it. Tap it on parts of your body where you’ve got aches and pains, then give it to one of the priests charged with collecting them before the ceremony begins. (You’ll see them standing inside the roped-off sacred fire area.)
When your stick is tossed on the bonfire, your complaints will go up in smoke too.
Before you stake out the perfect vantage point, a little advice: Literally check which way the wind is blowing first – any ceremony involving the biggest bonfire you’ve ever seen also involves a shit-ton of smoke. There’s pretty much no camera setting than can filter out clouds of ash between you and the Instagram gold.
Let the ceremony begin! Before there are coals, there has to be fire. If you didn’t guess that the square block of stacked wood inside the roped-off area was all going to be burned in one massive inferno, guess again. When the prayers have been chanted and rituals observed, a posse of monks converge on the pyre with burning torches…
It takes a while for that amount of wood to burn, but there are plenty of other things to watch after you’ve taken six or seven hundred shots of leaping flames.
First, they parade three giant red balls of talismans around the fire, to be blessed by the sacred smoke. (These get sold afterwards, so if you want a sacred souvenir, be sure to buy one on your way home afterwards)
Then, sacred arrows are shot into the air in all four directions, and soon after, monks take turns tossing the stacks of goma-gi onto the fire (are you feeling better already?) and you can occupy yourself trying to calculate how much they rake in from this annual event (which is otherwise FREE).
The fire has to be carefully managed so it results in a nice hot bed of coals at the end, so monks are deployed to toss water strategically on the flames to damp them down in any spots that are burning too fast.
The mountain monks who take part in the Firewalking Festival (they’re known as yamabushi) all follow a rigorous form of Xtreme Buddhism (shugen-do) that requires they develop the purity and mental toughness to stand nude under freezing cold waterfalls in the winter, splash themselves with boiling water and (naturally) walk over hot coals barefoot.
While waiting for the flames to do their thing, you can see various bare-chested monks take turns dousing themselves with boiling water from cauldrons conveniently set around the bonfire for their spiritual superman needs.
Yeah, that guy with the bunch of bamboo is swishing it through the boiling water and just whipping it onto himself.
Meanwhile, the bonfire gets bigger…
And monks rake the coals to even them out and prepare for the firewalking.
Finally, it’s time for the most venerable monk to cross the coals. He stands on a pile of salt to purify his feet before crossing the sacred fire, then sets out, aiming for the pile of salt that’s waiting on the other side
He’s followed by lots and lots and lots of monks (this part takes the better part of an hour) and while they’re doing that, anyone else who wants to walk across the coals lines up behind the last of the monks, and follows them across, one by one.
I didn’t see anyone hopping around like their feet were being burned, so I suspect that after the monks all walked that path, the most dangerous heat had dissipated. But you can see coals still burning alongside the two tracks, which is how it all looked before the most venerable guy in purple walked across, so those guys are the real deal. They really do venture out while those puppies are still still red-hot.
Dates: It’s usually around March 13, but doublecheck that for the year you plan to attend by searching “Hiwatari matsuri” and the year. Tokyo Cheapo and Time Out Tokyo usually have reliable information.
Here’s where Mt. Takao is:
Here’s how to get to Mt. Takao from Shinjuku Station:
I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, with your actual date and preferred arrival time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Ueno Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it.
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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had