Firewalking

At Oyama-ji, aka Oyama Fudouson, there is an annual firewalking festival on the the 3rd Sunday in May. It is one of the most lush rituals I’ve attended.

Oyama Fudouson will celebrate its 1300th anniversary of founding next year. (The shrine on the mountain above it is even older.) While it looks typically Buddhist on the outside, it actually celebrates a religious tradition you might not know about – shugendo. This is the “third religion” of Japan. It’s a mix of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs compounded with folk belief, animism, and shamanism. The priests are called yamabushi and they are tough. You may have read about some of its practices like waterfall training, midnight mountain treks, chili-pepper smoke, and firewalking.

The Oyama firewalking is a glorious display for the senses. The sound of the conch shells as the monks parade into the space calls everyone together around the pyre. There is chanting and singing. The robes and accessories the priests wear are full of color, texture and detail. Priests let arrows fly in four directions. A massive axe chops away evil. A sword slashes into the pyre. The priests intone prayers for the safety of the people and the land. And then they light the fire; this year made of two local hinoki trees which smelled fabulous.

As the fire burns, the priests carry trays of amulets and other items around the fire to bless them. The monks carry the onlookers’ purses and handbags into the smoke, too, if requested. Which of course I did because who doesn’t want a blessed backpack?

When the fire starts to die down, the faithful and curious line up, take off their shoes, and wait while the yamabushi separate the flaming logs are into two channels, rake the coals to cool them. When all is made safe, we are invited to cross from one side to the other.

It’s a short, smoky journey from the pile of salt we step into for purification to the head priest who symbolically slices our throats with his dagger. Then we’re handed a lucky amulet for our participation and volunteers gently hose off our feet before we put our shoes back on.

Having been blessed and brave, I feel ready for whatever comes.

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Mediatinker, Kristen McQuillin, is an American-born resident of Japan since 1998. This blog chronicles her life, projects, thoughts, and small adventures.