Japanese Oniyo Fire Festival
by Akiko Taku & Luke Shullenberger
Every year on January 7th the Daizenji precinct of Kurume City is engulfed in a controlled conflagration that is the Oniyo Fire Festival. The residents gather amidst a cascade of sparks, flames and fireworks at Tamatare Shrine to watch the Shinto priest and the men of the town exorcise the evil spirits and bestow luck, fertility and prosperity on the inhabitants. In a tradition that dates back 1900 years, the six neighborhoods surrounding the shrine construct huge torches and parade them between the holy waters of the Arai river and the shrine in order to chase the devil from the town.
Steeped in ritual and tradition, the preparation for the festival begins a week prior, on the last day of the calendar year. In order to ensure success and fortune for the town, the Shinto priest who directs the ceremony must undergo a seven-day purification ritual. He washes himself daily in the holy waters of the Arai River to purify his body. And in the shrine he prays every day for a bountiful rice crop, favorable weather and for peace, health and happiness for the people. In his most important act, a ceremony called Onie, he conjures the fire god Onibi using a sacred stone. From it will grow the fire that will light the massive torches.
Late in the afternoon of the 7th a group of 20 young men carrying torches and lanterns congregate outside the shrine. They are dressed in traditional white loincloths and headbands and are naked from the waist up. With the priest, they form a procession to the Arai River. They initiate the ceremony by cleansing themselves and carrying holy water back to the shrine in large wooden casks called Shiori Oke.
By the time the procession returns, hundreds of men in the same traditional dress have are milling about behind the main Hondo chamber of the Tamatare Shrine. Carrying torches, they run back and forth to the river in long lines to wash themselves. At 9:00 PM all the lights of the shrine are extinguished and a bell begins to chime. All the men assemble en mass. Large groups carry the six giant bamboo torches. Each one is wrapped in 365 lengths of rope (one for each day of the year), weighs up to 1200 kilograms (2600 lbs.) and measures about 13 meters long (40 ft.) and a meter wide. The men support them with dozens of hand-held bamboo props. The priest then steps forth from the Hondo and ignites them with the small flame of the Onibi fire spirit. The resulting glow and heat from the fire permeates the neighborhood.
For two hours the streets are awash in flame and noise. Accompanied by the booming sounds of taiko drums and chanting, the procession makes its way between the shrine and the river two times. In preparation for a final trip to the river, the procession re-gathers outside the Hondo chamber and calls out the devil. Children rap on the door with sticks. The men chant, “Hoko totta! Men totta! Sora nuita!” (I picked up a torch, donned a mask and rid you of yours!). In this way they roust the evil spirit from the shrine and lead it to the river to be cleansed.
For the townsfolk, it is important not only to witness the spectacle but to feel it as well. They believe that when sparks alight on them and when the heat washes over them they are “touching” the flames and being purified and blessed in the process. Thus they will receive good fortune and bounty during the upcoming year.
After the final procession escorts the “cleansed” spirits back to the shrine, the festival winds down. The lights of the temple are turned on, each torch is extinguished one by one and the bell rings in descending repetitions: seven times, five times and finally three times. And thus two millennia of mythology dictate that there will be 364 more days of good karma throughout the land.
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Japanese Oniyo Fire Festival