Shakotan Fire Festival: Part 1

When I was first offered the position in Shakotan, I did some quick research on the town. While I wasn’t able to find very much information, I did make one intriguing discovery; Shakotan has an annual festival centered on fire! The details weren’t clear to me at the time, but just seeing one photo of a man dressed as a Tengu (天狗) walking through five-foot high flames was enough for me. I had been looking forward to the festival ever since.

Shakotan’s Fire Festival (火の祭り) was scheduled for a July 4th, 5th and 6th, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. This also coincided with a junior high badminton tournament, and due to the English teacher’s schedule, this meant that I got the 5th and 6th off work. That made it possible for me to fully participate in the event, pushing around a dashi (山車 – float, festival car) with Yamazaki-san and the other townspeople.

On Monday, July 4th, there were some opening ceremonies to take care of before the festival really kicked into gear. At 5:30pm, I was to meet Yamazaki-san at a garage on the outskirts of town, just past Bikuni JHS and ES, where I teach. When I arrived, people were already hard at work, preparing the float for action.

The float was pretty awesome, made mostly of wood, with a car chassis for its skeleton. It was covered with gaudy, brightly colored decorations like paper lanterns and oni (鬼) masks, and had mostly a black and red color scheme truly befitting a carnival. While it had a steering well and brake, there was no engine. As Yamazaki explained to me, as a group, we were going to push and pull the float around town, kind of like Fred Flintstone. Two long ropes were unraveled from the front of the float, enabling several people to pull the vehicle, tug-of-war-style.

The float actually had its own PA system, powered by generators perched atop the contraption. When we set out, they got out the microphones and chanting began. Two drummers at the front of the float pounded out a rhythm on taiko drums, while flute players walking alongside the float piped out the melody. Two students, voices bolstered by microphones in hand, led the group on with a sea-shanty-like work song. It sounded something like, “Sore! Sore! Sore o-yo! Tomosu-ka-i, sore!” (それ!それ!それオーヨー!灯す会それ!) When the music was played, everyone pushed and pulled, moving our festival car down the road.

On Monday evening, we were only bringing the float to Bikuni Shrine (美国神社), the headquarters of the events festivities. At the shrine a Shinto priest blessed the float, as well as a second float that was operated by other team of locals. There were also o-mikoshi (お神輿), portable Shinto shrines that people carry like a palanquin.

While we were at the Shrine, there was plenty of time to chit-chat with students and parents. There was also ample time to drink some beer, which Yamazaki-san assured me would be constantly available and free throughout the festival. Sure enough, there were two coolers packed with canned drinks on the float; one cooler for soft drinks and one for beer and other alcoholic goodies.

I learned that our float’s name, or perhaps the name of the float team, was Tomosukai (灯す会). “Tomosu” (灯す) means to light, or turn on, and “kai” (会) means assembly, party, or club; so a good translation would probably be something like “Light-up Society”.

As the sun went down, we returned the float to the garage. The task was surprisingly more difficult than I expected, because the road had a slight incline and we were now going uphill. Afterwards, I went with some of my Tomosukai friends to Yamatomi, for ramen, yakitori, and even more beer. Even though I needed to get up early the next day, I still practiced my “nominication” (drinking + communication) with Nishikawa-san, Fujimura-san, and Nao-kun until 11:30ish.

On July 5th, the Fire Festival (火の祭り) was on like Donkey Kong. I woke up early, making sure that I made it to our starting point by 8am. I bought plenty of sunblock, as I knew that I would be burnt to a crisp without it. Another worry of mine was the bugs, which in Japan, are truly oppressive. Luckily, I knew that Yamazaki-san would be bringing tons of bug repellent supplies, so I wouldn’t need my own.

At the start of the day, we pushed our float back to Bikuni Shrine. To begin the festivities, the Shinto priests had to do some purification rituals involving sprinkling salt on the ground and swinging around a ceremonial wand covered in paper streamers. Then the Tengu came out.

I should explain that a Tengu (天狗) is a kind of mythical creature from Japanese folklore. (The mythical creatures are called Yōkai – 妖怪.) There’s actually a lot interesting mythical creatures like oni (鬼 – demon, ogre), kappa (河童 – water sprite), and kodama (木魂 – tree spirit). There are even a variety of animals that were thought to be capable of shape shifting and taking on human form, most notably the fox (狐) and tanuki (狸 - raccoon dog native to Japan). Sometimes a magical fox would be benevolent and helpful, but often they were apparently mischievous, so they were something to wary of. For this reason, to call someone a fox in modern Japanese is to call them sly or crafty, usually with a negative connotation. Funny, that’s similar to English.

Tengu are powerful beings that live in the mountains, secluded from civilization. They look human in form, although they usually have a red face and a distinctive long nose. Apparently the original Tengu conception was more of a bird-man creature, so the long nose is a carryover from that. Shakotan’s Tengu was a prime example of the mythic figure, with a bright red grimacing face, long nose, and prominent white hair protruding out from under his hat.  The Tengu was dressed in brilliant orange robes, and walked on stilt-like sandals that must have been five inches high. A sword was visible on the Tengu’s belt, but he also carried a long spear that displayed a crest of some sort. He really was an intimidating sight.

I knew my friend Yasuda-san was playing the part of Tengu in the Fire Festival, but I had no idea what an important role it was. For one thing, I didn’t realize that there is only one Tengu involved. Furthermore, the Tengu presides over all the ceremonial rituals. For example, he leads the procession of two dashi (山車 – floats) and several o-mikoshi (お神輿- portable shrines) that weave around town all day, and he is the first to walk through fire in the evening ceremonies. Basically, the Tengu is star of show.

After the priests had done their rituals and the Tengu had marched out, it was time for our float to get moving. The taiko kids drummed, the flute players piped, the people with microphones chanted, and the Tomosukai group got the float rolling.

To Be つづく’ed…


Filed under Shakotan

6 responses to “Shakotan Fire Festival: Part 1

  1. CK

    Hi there, I visited Shakotan last Friday and was fortunate to see the afternoon procession and the fire walking event at night. It was one of the highlights of my visit to Hokkaido. I believe I saw you in the afternoon procession!

    I didn’t have any background to the festival when I was there, so it’s very interesting to read your blog.

    from Hong Kong

    • Hi CK, I’m glad to hear that you got to experience Shakotan’s fire festival! If you saw a white guy involved in any of the festivities then, indeed, it was definitely me. To my knowledge, I am the only foreigner to participate in the event thus far. I’m very pleased that you found the blog to be helpful. Thanks for reading! Take care.

  2. Pingback: Through the Flames: Bikuni Shrine Festival 2012 | Rebel Without A Tan

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  4. Ed

    I’m pretty sure I saw you pushing the float this evening.

    Interesting world. Thanks for the information.

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