Hi Matsuri

Hi Matsuri (Fire Festival)

October 22
Early on the evening of October 22, people light bonfires along the narrow street leading to the Kuramadera Shrine in Kurama, a village in the mountains north of Kyoto, Japan. The bonfires are made with gigantic roots brought in from the nearby forest. Fire is a purifying element, according to Shinto teachings, and the village and its inhabitants are believed to be protected from accidents on this particular night.
Soon after dusk, people light torches: even babies, under the watchful eyes of their parents, are allowed to carry tiny torches made out of twigs. Young men carry large torches, sometimes so large it takes several men to keep them upright. As they walk through the streets, everyone chants rhythmically, "Sai-rei! Sai-ryo!" ("Festival, good festival"). Sometimes a marcher lets a heavy torch fall, and people try to catch one of the falling sparks because they believe it will bring them good luck.
Around midnight the torches begin to die down and the villagers grow quiet. Everyone gathers around either side of the stairway that takes one to the shrine. The entrance to the stairway has been barred with a rope, which a Shinto priest now cuts. Two groups of strong men carry the two elaborately decorated mikoshi or palanquins in which the kami or gods are believed to reside when they visit the earth. They take them down the stairway to the outskirts of the village and set them down. Everyone bids farewell to the kami, who must return to their spirit home.
Although no one knows exactly how the Fire Festival originated, some believe it was at one time a test of virility or an initiation rite conducted when a boy reached manhood. Another theory is that it originated in the custom of lighting fires called mukaebi to guide gods or spirits from the other world on their visits to earth.
CONTACTS:
Kyoto City Tourism & Culture Information
233-5 Daimon-ji-cho, Atarashimachi-dori
Oike-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku
Kyoto, 604-8315 Japan
81-7-5811-6388; fax: 81-7-5813-3250
www.kyotoguide.com
SOURCES:
IllFestJapan-1993, p. 148
JapanFest-1965, pp. 14, 201
YrJapanFest-1974, p. 25