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Kamikura Shrine - Fire Festival

On February 6, my friends of Shimada-juku and myself participated the famous fire festival of Kamikura Shrine atKumano area of Kii Penynsula of Japan. Since this festival is perhaps the oldest divine festival which has been repeated for about 1400 years, and we received extra-ordinary impact and leaning by participating to it, let me write some comments on what the fire festival of Kamikura shrine is all about and how weenjoyed and learned much by participating to it.

Kamikura shrine is located in Shingu-city, surrounded by green mountains and facing the Pacific Ocean,  which has been traditionary known as a prosperous base of lumber industry and fishery. Kamikura shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan which is known for its unique fire festival. In the holly history of Kumano region, it is written that at the time of the third year of Emperor Bintatsu(AD 574), Kamikura mountain was shining in the darkness. Following this mysticaffair, on January 6 of the luna calendar(now recognized as February 6 of the contemporary solar calendar)of the following year, namely,AD 575, the fire festival started at Kamikura shrine. The fire festival is said to follow the pattern of the mythical event of emergent reinforcement of Takakura-no-mikoto(God of Takakura) to assist the east-ward expedition of Emperor Ginmu(the first emperor) by rushing down the mountainbearing thedivine sword. And this festival is now designated as an intangible cultural inheritance of the Wakayama prefecture.
 
The fire festival(Oto Matsuri)has been repeated every year, precisely on Februrary 6(in solar calendar),since then for more than 1400 years following this divine tradition. Namely, worshippers purify their bodies and souls by washing themselves in the cold winter sea, eat or drink only colorless(white) food and sake, before climbing the sharp rocky hill of the shrine. After the sunset, the Shinto priest brings a holly fire to the shrine located at the top of the hill, and worshippers get this fire to put the fire on their own torch. When all the worshippers put fires on their torch, the large gate on the top of the hill is opened so that worshippers can run down the steep hill. It is believed that the worshipper who arrives first at the gateway at the bottom of the hill will get the forte. Therefore, worshippers compete with each other to rush down the steep hill holding firing torch at their hands, and this often creates wild and sometimes violent mass actions. This holly festival is known to be one of the most traditional and dynamic and spectacular festivals of Japanese shrines.
 
We flied from Haneda airport in the morning of February 6 aiming at arriving a local airport at the sea shore of Wakayama prefecture. Weather forecast of the day was snowy weather sometimes strong winds. It was worried that Haneda airport may be suspended for snow. Our plane fortunately left the airport on time. In spite of wild weather forecast of thick fog in Wakayama area, our plane landed threading through the thick rainy clouds. A miracle happened afterwards. While we are driving by a micro bus on a scenery road along the valley to get to the city of Shingu where the shrines are located, the thick clouds rapidly faded away and sunshine and even blue skies appeared. The local people told us when we arrived at the destiny that this kind of fine and warm weatherwas possible only once in a few decades according to their experience.
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After enjoying a nice lunch of earl, we drove several miles along the seaside road for another very old and traditional shrine, "Hana no Iwaya( Rocky sheltering cave of flowers) which is located by the sea shore just across the prefectural border to Mie prefecture. The shrine is known to have been built a long time ago as a holly place to preserve a divine rock symbolizing the woman following the Shinto myth of the first female god "Izanami" just like the Eve described in the Christian old Testament. We were keenly impressed by imaginary wisdom and construction of primitive Shinto shrines such as "Hana no Iwaya" symbolizing the origin of females and "Kamikura shrine" symbolizing the origin of males.
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We changed our clothes at the hall of the chamber of the city. The cloths we wore were all white, traditional sandal made of rice grass, and gathered up and tighten the wast with several rounds of woven rice grass. Each of us was supplied a wooden torch of three feet long with pentagonal grip and a bunch of thin slices of wood at the top to put fire on.
 
At the chamber of commerce office room, we were joined by the governor Mr. Yoshinobu Nisaka of Wakayama prefecture. He is a fine man, active, knowledgeable, sensible and popular leader of the region. Mr. Nisaka strongly urged me to participate to the fire festival as a climbing worshiper, not as an observer.
 
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After making up ourselves with this traditional costumes, we started to visit three shrines in the town to worship before climbing the rocky hill of Kamikura shrine. It was reported later that nearly two thousands climbing worshippers, only males since no females are allowed to join, participated that evening. On the way of several miles walk in the town, the worshippers were cordially welcomed and encouraged by being supplied sake by shops and ordinary households along the way.
 
By the time we reached the entrance to the steep ladder of steps to climb the hill of Kamikura shrine, the sun was completely set and the whole hill was standing in the darkness with only small lights, here and there, to show vaguely the way for us to climb. It is said that there are 538 steps to climb the hill. The steps, however, are quite irregular, some are rocks, others are stones and woods. The hights are all different. It was quite a labor to climb. And we finally arrived at the top of the hill and worshipped the shrine built at the side of the holly rock symbolizing the male.
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Within an hour of so, crowds of climbing worshippers arrived continuously to a relatively narrow space on the top of the hill. Luckliy, it was not as cold as we had worried. Shortly before 8 p.m., the priest holding a holly fire walked through the dense crowds of worshippers. When the priest repeated this action twice, many of the worshippers stretched their hands with torches to get the holly fire. Within several minutes, nearly 2000 torches of worshippers were all lit by fire. This was a gorgeous and impressive scene. And the hill was soon covered by fire entirely.
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minutes than was planned. We heard afterward that the delay was caused by some accident. Observers waiting for us around the entrance gate told us after the event that a security crew hurriedly carried down the stretcher with aWe all waited the gate to the down hill to be opened. It took several more seriously injured man on it. This reminded us of some large voices and sounds of butting wooden torches shortly before the opening of the gate. Perhaps this was a violent struggle of men trying to get better positions to run down the steps. This kind of violence and quarrels are said to be not rare. Indeed, this is a natural phenomenon of this wild fire festival of men.
 
After the turmoil, we walked down the hill in the darkness luckily quite safely. On the way we saw a few young men whose costumes were tainted with splash of blood.
 
Walking a few miles from the shrine, we were welcomed by local people including the governor Nisaka himself at the fiesta to celebrate this holly festival. Vice governor prepared a wild pig soup and the mayor of Shingu city prepared noodles. It was a nice and family-like fiesta which was so good to warm up our cold bodies.P1000052
 
Our tour to the fire festival of Kamikura shrine was an unique and wonderful experience. We enjoyed it thoroughly and learned a lot of things particularly relating to our ancestors of ancient times. I think it is important to share this kind of experience with as many young friends as possible. I am thinking of participating again with young friends.

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