Nachi No Hi Matsuri

Nachi No Hi Matsuri (Kumano Fire Festival, Nachi Fire Festival)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Shinto)
Date of Observation: July 14
Where Celebrated: Kumano, Japan
Symbols and Customs: Fire, Mikoshi, Religious Dances, Torches


The Nachi No Hi Matsuri, or Nachi Fire Festival, is part of the Shinto tradition. Shinto is an ancient religion that originated in Japan. Most Shinto adherents live in Japan, but small communities also exist in Europe, Latin America, North America, and in the Pacific island nations.

The name Shinto was first employed during the sixth century C . E . to differentiate indigenous religions in Japan from faith systems that originated in mainland Asia (primarily Buddhism and Confucianism). The word is derived from two Chinese characters, shen (gods) and tao (way). Loosely translated, Shinto means "way of the gods." Its roots lie in an ancient nature-based religion. Some important concepts in Shinto include the value of tradition, the reverence of nature, cleanliness (ritual purity), and the veneration of spirits called kami. Strictly speaking, kami are not deities. The literal translation of the word kami is "that which is hidden."

Kami (which is both the singular and plural term) are honored but do not assert their powers upon humans in the traditional manner of deities or gods in other religions. People may be descended from the kami, and kami may influence the course of nature and events. The kami can bestow blessings, but they are not all benign. Kami are present in natural things such as trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. They are embodied in religious relics, especially mirrors and jewels. They also include spirits of ancestors, local deities, holy people, and even political or literary figures. The human role is to venerate the kami and make offerings. The ultimate goal of Shinto is to uphold the harmony among humans and between people and nature. In this regard, the principle of all kami is to protect and sustain life.

The central authorities in Shinto are the priests. Traditionally, the duties of the priest were passed through heredity lines, but in modern times priests are trained on the basis of recommendation. The priests' duties include communicating with the kami and ensuring that ceremonies are properly carried out. Shinto does not Nachi No Hi Matsuri

have a single collection of sacred texts analogous to the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur'an. Instead, several important books provide information and guidance: Koji- ki (Records of Ancient Events), Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), and Engishiki (Chronicles of the Engi).

Nachi No Hi Matsuri takes place in Kumano, Japan, located near the city of Kyoto. This Shinto festival honors the spirits associated with the nearby Nachi waterfall. The local people have venerated this beautiful waterfall-133 meters in height- for centuries. The nearby Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine provides a sanctuary for the local deities that sprang from the waterfall.

Shinto believers also worship spirits. These spirits include the souls of the departed, as well as kami that represent features of the natural landscape. Shinto spirituality emphasizes the sacredness of the natural world and promotes the worship of nature spirits as a means of forging deeper connections with the gods and with the processes of creation itself. These beliefs explain the existence of so many sacred sites in Japan. The Nachi waterfall is one of these sacred sites.

Participating in festivals is an important activity for Shinto believers. Festivals provide people with a means of honoring the gods and spirits, thereby drawing blessing to themselves. In addition to the nationally celebrated festivals, many towns and villages have their own festivals to honor local deities. Popular local festivals, such as the Nachi Fire Festival, may attract many people from other areas, as well as local residents.

Throughout the year the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine houses the small portable shrines that provide dwelling places for the twelve kami associated with the Nachi falls. It is also said that the twelve mini-shrines, called MIKOSHI , represent the twelve months of the year. The Nachi fire festival provides the deities with their yearly excursion to the waterfall. After being carried to the waterfall in a grand torchlit procession, the mikoshi are positioned so that the mist of the waterfall sprays over them. This refreshes the kami, who in turn bless the land and the people.



In the Shinto religion, fire is considered a purifying force. The huge torches that festival participants carry are purposefully brought close to the mikoshi, in order that the flames exert their purifying force on the shrine and the spirit within. Festival participants, too, are purified by their proximity to the fires. The Nachi No Hi Matsuri is one of the three most famous Shinto fire festivals in Japan.


A mikoshi is a portable shrine that provides a home or resting place for a Shinto god. Many Shinto festivals feature processions in which mikoshi are paraded through the streets of town as a means of providing festival goers with the opportunity to greet and honor the god, and also as a means of allowing the deity to bless the people. Mikoshi are designed to look like tiny temples set atop litters. Two sturdy wooden poles run along each side of the carrying platform. The poles make it possible for the bearers to carry the mikoshi on their shoulders as if they were carrying an important dignitary on a litter. Designers usually beautify the mikoshi by fitting it with elaborate brass ornaments and silken cords.

The Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine houses twelve mikoshi, one for each of the twelve local deities associated with the Nachi waterfall. These vermillion-colored mikoshi are six meters tall, decorated with gold gilt, and shaped like waterfalls. They are further adorned with fans and mirrors. The beautiful fans that decorate these mikoshi have led to a nickname for the festival, Ogi Matsuri, or "Fan Festival." On the very top of each mikoshi sits a representation of the mythical phoenix bird, an emblem of divinity.

The religious highpoint of the festival is the procession of the mikoshi down to the waterfall and the sacred ceremonies that are performed there. Then the bearers carry the mikoshi back to the Nachi Grand shrine, where they will stay until the next year's festival.

Religious Dances

Before the mikoshi leave the Shinto temple, sacred dances are performed within the temple precinct. Some of these dances represent the planting of the fields. Sacred dances are also performed in front of the mikoshi when they are stationed next to the waterfall. The harvesting of the fields is an important theme represented in these dances.


Specially designated festival participants, dressed all in white, meet the mikoshi on their journey from the shrine to the waterfall, carrying twelve huge torches. Each of these torches weighs fifty kilograms and requires three or four strong people to carry it. The torch bearers keep the torches close to the mikoshi so that the fire can exercise its purifying effect. Once the mikoshi are positioned near the falls, the bearers continue to keep the huge torches moving alongside them.

Many of the spectators who follow the procession also carry torches. These much smaller torches can easily be held in one hand. Even children may be allowed tiny torches for the occasion. Nachi No Hi Matsuri


Bauer, Helen and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.


Encyclopedia of Shinto, Kokugakuin University, Tokyo, Japan

Japan National Tourist Organization

Kumano Field Museum

Religious Movements, University of Virginia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009