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:
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, a map of the Mt. Takao area is on my website, The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had. For this year’s dates, check the March listing on the Tokyo Cheapo site. 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 writes novels set in Tokyo
Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!