Shakotan Fire Festival: Part 3

July 6th was the final day of the Shakotan Fire Festival (火の祭り), and we got started even earlier, at 7:30am. The weather had grown increasingly hot and I started sweating before we had even pushed the dashi one block. I asked Fujimura-san if it would be permissible to ditch my t-shirt and he approved, so I went shirtless under my happi coat. I expected my ghostly white skin might garner some attention, and it did, both from kids and adults. The male students have little to no reservation about touching their teachers and I discovered this is even true when one is shirtless.

Much like the previous day, Wednesday’s activities involved pushing the dashi around the streets that we had not yet visited. We again danced intermittently along the way, putting on a show for the benefit of the citizens who presented their offerings to the portable shrine. Since this was the final day of the festival, I helped myself to countless beers throughout the journey.

The dancing was already my favorite part of the festivities, but at some point during this last day, it actually became something magical. Most of the songs were good fun to dance to, but one song in particular elicited an extraordinary of feeling joy and goodwill; Hana Matsuri by Tatsuya Ishii (花まつり -石井竜也).  The only lyrics from the song that I picked up were 「みんなで」, (meaning “everyone together”) but even without comprehending the lyrics, the mood of the song was unmistakable. As the Tomosukai group danced to this song, members of other dashi and mikoshi teams would join in, making for a huge group dance. The choreography had us in a circle formation, moving around the center like a wheel. As everyone danced and sang together, the atmosphere of camaraderie was infectious; pure and simple celebration. Any inklings of homesickness or loneliness were instantly washed away, and for once I had the feeling that at that moment, there was no place in the world I would rather be. It was intensely enjoyable, the highlight of my Japan experience so far.

There was one member of a mikoshi team that made a special effort to talk to me. He was a stocky, muscular fisherman with the look of badass, rough and tumble brawler. Looks can be deceiving though, as he turned out to be very friendly, with a smile big enough to match his biceps. He asked me where I was from and when I told him I was American, he share with me his love of American rock music. He specifically mentioned Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, and Van Halen as some of his favorites. I asked him if he like any Japanese rock bands, but he said didn’t care for them.

The dashi pushing and dancing carried on into twilight hours. Just as the sun was going down, we turned onto the main road that cut through the center of town. The two floats pulled up side by side, completely blocking off traffic, so if anyone tried driving down the 229 right then, they picked the wrong the night for it. There, in the street in front of the local Seicomart, two days of celebration culminated into one giant party. Everyone sang and danced by the light of the festival cars. I found myself surrounded by my JHS students, some of them playing flutes or drums, all of them dancing. It was hard to tell how much of the magical atmosphere I felt was the genuinely joyous celebration and how much was just my drunkenness, but either way, it was an incredible, one of a kind experience.

The street party started to gravitate in the direction of Bikuni Shrine and the dashi got moving again. I then realized that I had a second opportunity to walk through fire, and quickly made my way to the shrine house. Unlike the previous night, Yoshimura-sensei and the other JHS teachers weren’t present, so I was potentially on my own. However, I discovered Nao-kun was fire walking, so I knew someone in the group after all. I changed into my white ninja garb and went out to find a spot on the mikoshi.

As luck would have it, there were less people participating in the fire walking on the second night, definitely not enough people to have one man whose only responsibility was to ring the bells. This time I would be shouldering the burden as well and legitimately crossing the inferno.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

The chanted started and everyone heaved the mikoshi up and down, building anticipation. This time it was for real. This wasn’t a watered down substitute, no kid gloves. It was on! My pulse raced and I felt exhilarated, but less from fear and more from mob excitement around me. The pushing was much more evident from under the mikoshi. You really had no choice but to go along with the forceful flow, resistance was futile.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

There was a fierce push and the group ran forward into the flames. This time, I could feel the intense heat of the fire. Passing over the flames, the wave of heat that washed over my body somehow felt purifying. Just on the verge of burning, if one moves quickly over the bonfire the feeling is akin to running one’s hand through a candle flame; intensely warm, but not dangerous for the swift. Feet trampling over the fire sent burning embers into the air as well, and the glowing flakes blew past my eyes like fiery snow.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

As we turned around for our second pass, I was violently shouting the chant in rhythm with the other men. The mob mentality had taken hold and I was as engulfed in the ritual experience as I was in the flames. At that moment, I wasn’t really myself; I was just part of the collective.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

At some point, I began laughing hysterically. If anyone was watching me closely, it would have been clear that I had lost my mind, but there were a lot of us, so no one noticed. Cackling like the Joker, I moved along with the pushing, right into the fire again and the tall flames licked my ninja mask.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

After five passes, we were resting the mikoshi on a stand nearby the main shrine building. It was all done. I felt extremely grateful to have the second chance to run it, and the second time was much more satisfying.

Nao-kun and I returned to the shrine house and changed back into street clothes. An older gentleman inside thanks us for participating and offered us some sake. I hadn’t turned down a drink for the entire festival and this was no exception. As we drank, Nao-kun explained to me, in English, that this was blessed sake. For a moment I wondered if it was like drinking the sacramental wine in church, but since it was so much better than Carlos Rossi, I figured it didn’t matter either way.

And that was that, the festival concluded. Along with Yamazaki-san and the rest of the Tomosukai crew, we returned the dashi to the garage. Then, Yamazaki-san, Makoto-san, and I went out for post-festival drinks and karaoke. By that point, more drinking was probably the last thing my body needed, but I was too far gone to notice. Yasuda-san and his wife also met us at the bar. Fresh off his successfully run playing the Tengu, Yasuda-san was met with much praise and adulation. We drank beer and I sang Sake-yo, I think…

Suddenly, I was awoken by the IP phone’s 7:30am message. Sprawled out on my wood floor, I had apparently passed out without even taking my futon out of the closet. True to my previous drunken adventures, I had only managed to remove my pants before losing consciousness. The hangover was terrible, punishing my head and my stomach for the previous day of constant drinking. When I realized that I had to be at the school in 30 minutes, I felt like I had made a serious error in judgment. It was only Thursday, after all. Still I had to smile. It had been an amazing ride.

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