Fire-walking at Mount Takao

The monks and the fire.

Mount Takao is located in a western, wooded stretch of greater Tokyo. It is a prime destination to take in the seasons and escape the asphalt island that is the rest of the city. Plum and cherry blossoms in the spring and crimson maples in the autumn attract the most visitors. An old temple, Yakuōin, sits near the low peak and Mount Fuji rises in the hazy distance.

But every year on the second Sunday of March, a crowd gathers at the foot of Takao, forgoing the hike (or cable car ride) up the leafy slopes. They come for Hi-watari Matsuri, literally “fire-crossing festival,” performed by the monks of Yakuōin.

Although the fire-walking attracts the most attention, Hi-watari Matsuri is actually a long series of rituals that lasts hours. The festival opens with prayer and a procession as monks play conch shells; but the serene beginning gives way to violence. The monks wield an axe and a sword, fire arrows into the heap of fresh greenery waiting to burn, and self-flagellate with branches dipped in boiling water while they bellow prayers.

Then, there is fire.

Monks tossing water on the fire

When the flames turn to embers, the monks march across barefoot, leaving trails of smoldering ash. Onlookers are then welcome to follow. Although the fire has all but vanished, there are still pockets of scorching heat. Many people start slowly, only to scamper across halfway through. A pair of ambulances idles ominously behind the throng. Of course, the monks who go first when the embers are the hottest have no difficulty.

Crossing the ashes.

The underlying meanings of Hi-watari Matsuri are as diverse as the various rituals. Health, purity, elimination of delusion, and fostering the desire for Buddhist awakening are all aims of the festival. In other words, violence and severity of sensation light the path toward a peaceful and enlightened existence.

All photos by the author.

Y.B. Shiraz is a house-husband residing in Japan. He is currently raising a toddler and enjoying life away from graduate school.