Takaosan Fire-walking Festival

On our eighth day in Tokyo we once again decided to venture out of the city. When we were planning our trip we thought it might be nice to get away from all of the bustle of the city and spend some time in nature. We did some research on good day hikes that were easily accessible by public transportation from Tokyo, and Takao-san was almost always mentioned. We also realized that our time in Tokyo coincided with the Takao-san Fire-walking Festival, so naturally we planned our trip out for the day of this event.

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The event took place in a big empty lot just down the street from the train station.

We stopped at 7-Eleven for breakfast on the way to the subway station. Just as we were getting into our usual routine breakfast 7-Eleven served up some new and interesting delicacies for us. Among my favorites were rice balls wrapped in tofu skin and fried noodle sandwiches. I’m not sure who thought it would be tasty to serve up a bunch of noodles on a bun, but hats off to them for coming up with one of the strangest food concepts we tried while in Japan.

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The yamabushi, Shugendo monks, led the procession past the crowds and stalls selling food.

When we arrived at the subway station I realized I had left my IC card in the pocket of the pants I had been wearing the day before. Faced with the prospect of an extra half hour walking back to our apartment to get it, I decided to just bite the bullet and buy tickets. The trip was only about an hour and a half and the ticket was roughly $14. Having become inured to the endless cityscape that is Tokyo, we spent much of our time on the train reading. Eventually, the city began to fade, buildings were spaced farther apart, small farm fields sprouted up here and there, and shades of gray transformed to shades of green.

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The pre-fire ritual also involved traditional weapons like the spear, sword, and bow and arrow pictured here.

The Takao-san station was minuscule compared to what we had grown accustomed to in Tokyo. We stepped outside and followed the crowds to the festival grounds. There were a few rows of stalls selling all manner of snacks, from takoyaki and fried noodles to cotton candy and chocolate dipped bananas. There was still about half an hour before the festival was scheduled to begin, but already the crowd was thick. There was a large pile of greens, surrounded by wooden planks with writing on them, in the center of the area.

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The guy in purple here probably read several miles worth of scrolls without taking a breath or altering the pitch of his voice.

We decided to forgo snacks and attempt to wriggle our way to a spot with a good view of the action. At around one o’clock a long procession of people began making their way into the area around the pyre. They were all decked out in traditional white outfits, blowing on horns, and shaking shakers. In the beginning there was a lot of chanting and reciting things from long scrolls, and to be honest it was kind of boring. As soon as one long, monotonous, droning recitation ended, another would begin. It was like the guys reading weren’t even breathing. The words just kept flowing out, at the same measured pace, with the same slightly nasal tone. I suppose it might have helped if we had known what was being said, or any context surrounding the ritual, but then again maybe it wouldn’t have.

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As soon as the pile was lit it was a rush to toss all of the wooden slats on top.

Eventually they lit things up and then the show really started. At first there was just an enormous billow of smoke, reaching high up into the sky, blowing forward in the wind (fortunately we were not standing in the direction the wind was blowing). Then the fire began rising . We were standing pretty far away but you could still feel the heat. Participants began gathering up the wooden slats and throwing them on top of the pile. After the fire had been going for a while they started putting it out. People were frantically running from the sidelines to the fire with relatively small buckets of water and tossing them onto the flames. It looked like an immense yet inefficient effort, running back and forth through the smoke, around this massive fire, carrying such small buckets. I wasn’t sure if they would be able to get it under control, but eventually the flames died down and a pathway was made through the ashes and coals left behind. I’m in no way knowledgeable on the subject, but I can’t help but think there must be some kind of traditional significance to doing it that way, as opposed to just dousing the thing with a fire hose.

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Can you imagine putting out a fire that big with only buckets of water?

Now it was finally time for the fire walking. The procession began making their way across. I found it surprisingly honest that for many people there was absolutely no pretense of stoicism, with many participants quickly hopping and scampering across as fast as they could. It was hard not to imagine them shouting out “ow ow ow ow ow!” as they bounded across on their toes. Not to belittle them though, I’m sure I would have done the same. After the official participants finished, the path was opened up for spectators. We thought about it, but, in the few moments we spent deliberating whether or not it would be worth it, the line had grown immensely long. We opted instead to get some snacks from the food stalls which were less crowded now that everyone else was waiting in line for fire-walking.

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There were still some flames in the middle as the participants began filing across. Things cooled down before the regular Joes were allowed to start walking though.

Full of baked potato and chocolate covered bananas, we were ready for our hike up Takao-san. The walk was pretty easy compared to most of the hikes we had recently done in New Zealand, but the beautiful mountain and forest scenery made for a nice break from the city. We opted for the number 6 path on the way up which passed a waterfall and featured some fun stepping stones that followed a stream. The trails were all marked and easy to follow, even without a map.

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Apparently this was the direction in which you could sometimes see Mt. Fuji. This was the first time that I noticed a somewhat hazy sky on our trip. More on that in a later post!

At the top you can normally see Mt. Fuji in the distance, but the sun was setting and it was a bit cloudy so we didn’t really have much of a view. On the opposite side of the peak there were views of the city (maybe Tokyo?) off in the distance. We took the number 4 path on the way down because it featured a suspension bridge, which got Alana all excited. The setting sun cast a warm glowing light over everything as we made our way back down from the peak. Eventually this path met up with path number 1, which was more like a paved road, and led us back down to the train station.

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There were multiple ways up the mountain, in varying degrees of pavedness.

It was pretty amazing considering that this was all only about 45 minutes outside of central Tokyo. If you find yourself in Tokyo and getting fed up with the hustle and bustle of the city, then just hop on the train for a day trip to Takao-san!

P.S. for more exciting pictures be sure to check out our instagram!

 

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