Thursday Dec. 5, Atago Shrine in Fukuoka’s Nishi-ku let off a billowing cloud of smoke as part of proceedings of its annual Fire Festival. The Shinto festival invites visitors to purify the body and ward off misfortune by completing a ritual that involves writing a wish on paper, throwing it onto a bonfire and walking barefoot across burning coals. Fukuoka Now intern Tomo Greer reported on Atago Shrine’s biggest event of the year…
The thing I admire and find the most strange about Japan is how Japanese people usually do not identify themselves as Shinto or Buddhist. Rather, they pray, eat and celebrate at both shrines and temples, embracing both religions equally and to the full extent. The women next to me commented on how she didn’t know what today’s fire festival was about or how it originated, but she does it for the sake of doing it. The man next to me joked that it’s lucky being Japanese, enjoying double the festivals and the foods that come with them. In fact, this is the attitude of a lot of modern day Japanese people; what matters the most is keeping the tradition and culture alive, and if that means celebrating both religions, so be it. And today, everyone at Atago Shrine was temporary dedicated to Shintoism, including myself.
The festival started with the shrine officials cutting a rope to enter the ‘sacred area’ off-limits to ordinary citizens. This area included a pile of leaves and spruce tree branches that resembled a mountain, in which the men recalled the great spirits of the fire and water gods, while warding off evil spirits that had been attracted to the shrine and the people throughout the year. While this was happening, I wrote a wish on a wooden token in traditional kanji that was to be burnt along with the pile of leaves and branches. Then I was puzzled; why would you want to burn your wish when its going to turn into ashes? Especially alongside burning the bad spirits, it seemed to me this would, rather than grant my wish, destroy it into pieces. A friendly local ojichan (old man) smiled to me and told me not to worry, that the fire god being called into the shrine by the priest would take my wish up with the smokes. Double the luck, the fire god was taking my bad luck and my wishes up with him. This seemed like a good deal in return for walking on burning coals.
The Guji (chief priest) then blessed the altar, the shrine officials and the attendants before the event began. Everyone bowed to receive this ‘oharai’, part of the process of cleansing the body and the soul leading up to the New Year’s period. The Guji then asked us to leave behind whatever bad feelings we were holding today in the fire, and to leave the bad luck behind for the New Year coming. There was a tense, edgy feel for a few moments while attendants briefly gave thought to the bad feelings they intended to leave behind today, shown in their clouded facial expressions. Within no time, smiles were back on faces as the rituals began along with the horns, chants and drums harmonising to create a truly authentic Japanese festival feel.
Next was a ritual with an axe, to cut the replicated mountain down and call the fire god spirits into the mountain. This was followed by a ritual where a woman used her bow and arrow to expel the bad spirits out of the shrine, shooting from east to south, in every direction.
Once these spirits were warded off, it was time to set fire to the mountain and throw the countless wishes that had been written on wooden tokens. These were passed out to attendants, and it didn’t matter whose wish you were holding. Everyone was eager to throw the wishes into the fire, and the crowd was almost as heated up as the fire burning in front of them.
The smoke from the fire rose up so high in the sky, ashes were falling down even a while after the fire stopped burning. The chanting and horns continued until the mountain was almost completely burnt down, then the officials began creating a pathway for everyone to walk across the fire.
“But it’s really not that hot!” the priest assured all of us. There were still concerned faces, debating whether they should walk across the pathway, that was only moments ago burning vigorously up in the air. In fact, it was still rather warm by the time my turn came around to walk on the fire. My feet had frozen up from the winter breeze, and walking on hot fire seemed like a blessing, quite literally.
After bowing to the spirits, warding off my bad spirits, and bathing my feet in salt before walking across the fire, I was wholly purified, and ready to take on the New Year with a cleansed body and soul.
To add to this good feeling, Iwai-Mochi (rice cakes) was a must have afterwards, with the shop located just at the bottom of Atago Jinja. Now the shrine is ready to begin preparing for the New Year’s period, with the bad spirits out of the shrine. So if you missed out on this smokey event, make sure to pay Atago a visit whether its for hatsumoude, the view, or just for the delicious mochi!
Atago Shrine / 2-7-1 Atago, Nishi-ku / 092-881-0103 / http://atagojinjya.com
Report by Tomo Greer, photographs by Satomi Takei for Fukuoka Now.