Firewalking 101

HiwatariWalk

I’m not sure who first thought that walking across burning coals would be an awesome superpower to have, but sometime in the distant past, that’s exactly what a bunch of more-rugged-then-thou Japanese warrior priests learned to do. Firewalking is still done once a year at the foot of Mt. Takao by practitioners of shugendo, a rather, er, rigorous form of Buddhism which also features the chanting of sutras while standing nearly naked under a pounding waterfall.

I highly recommend reading up on shugendo (and looking at the gorgeous pictures) on Tokyobling’s blog, but for those of you who’d like the Clif Notes(TM) version of what to expect when you go to the Hiwatari Matsuri, here’s the lowdown:

When you arrive, buy a goma-gi for ¥200 and write your name and age on it. If you tap parts of your body where you've got aches and pains, then give it to one of the priests standing inside the sacred fire area before the ceremony begins. When your stick is tossed on the bonfire, it'll be consumed and purified, along with whatever illnesses you have.

When you arrive, buy a goma-gi for ¥200 and 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 standing inside the sacred fire area before the ceremony begins. When your stick is tossed on the bonfire, your complaints will go up in smoke too.

At 1:00, the participants form a procession that visits the small nearby shrine with much blowing of conch shells, before filing into the sacred bonfire area. Before torching of the mountain of cedar boughs, various ceremonies must be observed: the striking of the flint, the firing of arrows in all four directions, martial arts-like katas with a long-handled axe and a sword, the reading of rather lengthy sutras, and, of course, the recitation of the names of worthy donors (a lot of them).

At 1:00, the participants form a procession that visits the small nearby shrine with much blowing of conch shells, before filing into the sacred bonfire area. Before torching the pyre of cedar boughs, various ceremonies must be observed: the striking of the flint, the firing of arrows in all four directions, martial arts-like katas with a long-handled axe and a sword, the reading of rather lengthy sutras, and, of course, the recitation of the names of worthy donors (a lot of them).

As the fire begins to catch, straw bales poked with thousands of arrow-like charms are paraded around the mountain of cedar. Afterwards, you can buy one to take home if you like.

As the fire begins to catch, straw bales poked with thousands of arrow-like charms are paraded around the mountain of cedar. Afterwards, you can buy one to take home if you like.

Burn, baby, burn! Those things that look like a dismembered picket fence are actually prayer sticks from major donors. They're the first to go.

Burn, baby, burn! Let the chanting of the heart sutra begin! As flames shoot higher and higher into the sky, the intensity of the chanting increases.

The burn is controlled by guys tossing countless buckets of water on the outer boughs.

The burn is controlled by guys tossing countless buckets of water on the outer boughs.

As the blaze settles down, the goma-gi are tossed into the flames.

As the blaze settles down, the goma-gi are tossed into the flames.

Before the actual walking over hot coals can begin, two half-naked shugenja swish great bouquets of bamboo leaves through cauldrons of boiling water.

Before the actual walking over hot coals can begin, two half-naked shugenja swish great bouquets of bamboo leaves through cauldrons of boiling water.

And finally, starting with the most eminent mountain priest, everyone walks barefoot over the hot coals.

An finally, starting with the most eminent mountain priest, everyone walks barefoot over the hot coals.

Some practical advice:

• If you want to get a good spot for taking pictures, get there by 10:00 a.m. because by noon (an hour before the ceremony starts) the crowd will already be three-deep.

• The entire thing takes about two hours, and there’s nowhere to sit. High heels are not recommended.

• Check which way the wind is blowing before choosing your spot. Trust me, you do not want to be in the path of the smoke. There is a lot of it once the bonfire gets going, and not only will you not be able to see a damn thing, everything down to your toenails will smell like you just spent a week crouched over a campfire.

• Ordinary people are allowed to walk across the warm ashes after the priests. If you want to do this, you have to get in the (long) line. Take off your shoes and socks before crossing the ashes, then pay your respects in front of the altar at the end before leaving. Bring along a towel to clean off your feet afterwards if you don’t want your socks to be black.

If you’re in Tokyo in mid-March and would like to go to the fire ceremony, directions & a map are on my website, The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had. More really fantastic photos of this ceremony on Tokyobling’s blog – there are three separate posts, all with photos worth seeing, so scroll through them all!

Jonelle Patrick is the author of the Only In Tokyo mystery series, now out for the first time in paperback!

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