Tag Archives: FIRE

Through the Flames: Bikuni Shrine Festival 2012

In July 2012, just like the previous year, I participated in Shakotan’s Fire Festival, whose proper name is actually the Bikuni Jinja Matsuri (美国神社祭り). The festival is named for the main Shinto shrine in Bikuni town (美国町). Even though it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, I still came away from the experience feeling like I had learned a lot, yet again. In fact, it was genuinely humbling.

Once again, I was braving the flames and doing hikuguri (火くぐり), the fire walking ritual whose name literally means “through fire”. An older fellow in town had pointed out to me that since hikuguri is only practiced in Shakotan’s Bikuni town (美国町) and the neighboring village of Furubira (古平町), I was almost certainly the first—if not the only—non-Japanese person to do it. (Furubira also has a resident ALT much like myself, but perhaps he is too sensible of a guy to run through a bonfire.)As a cultural explorer, I had found a true frontier in Shakotan, and the concept of my primacy in this iconic ritual really bolstered my ego. But of course, as I quickly learned, this was hubris.

Having done hikuguri and ran through the fire last year, I arrogantly assumed that I had it pretty well down. I certainly gave off a bit of a “been there, done that” vibe. When they asked me where on the omikoshi (おみこし – portable Shinto shrine) I wanted to be placed, I told them, “Anywhere is fine.” I should have taken note of the organizer’s surprise. The man took a moment to draw a squarish omikoshi diagram in the dirt—quite literally drawing lines in the sand—to illustrate the different positions at which one could placed on the heavy portable shrine. You see, the omikoshi are quite heavy and it’s a group effort to haul them. The strength and, more importantly, height of each individual involved makes a big difference. Based on my height and willingness, he placed me at the back of the omikoshi, in the center.

Back… center… I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is not a fun place to be.

Thursday July 5th, was the first night of fire walking. Since I had spent most of the day pushing a dashi (山車 – float, festival car) around Bikuni with the Tomosukai (灯す会) group, I was fairly exhausted by the time the inferno hour arrived. In fact, I had even taught one English class that afternoon. Right after lunch, I had changed clothes, driven 20 minutes or so to Nozuka Elementary, taught my class, driven back, changed back into my festival garb, and rejoined the others mid-parade. Changing gears in the middle of the day like that had been surprisingly tiring.

When I got to the shrine house, I was given my white cotton pants, shirt, gloves, and two towels for covering my head. I quickly changed and met up with the other fire-walkers outside. I was pleased to discover my fellow junior high teachers there, including Yusuke, the English teacher. Even Nao-kun, the cool, young guy from the town office who had carried the omikoshi with me the previous year was there. We got organized, finding our places on the omikoshi and drank some pre-fire walking sake.


As we were making our final preparations, the Tengu began his own ceremonial hikuguri. From behind a wall of spectators, we could see flames reaching high in the air, illuminating the shine grounds. The crowd cheered with excitement at the Tengu’s performance, while the omikoshi carriers waited. The drunker participants made loud banter. One fellow in particular was overly interested in the size of my penis and repeatedly asked me about it. (Now I see where the kids get it.) The more sober and less experienced carriers fidgeted with nervousness. In the midst of a particularly large flare up, Yusuke let out a sigh of apprehension, while I gave a cocky laugh.

The Tengu is the fire walking master.

“You really like this event, don’t you?” Yusuke asked, giving me a sideways glance.

“But of course!” I replied. “It’s surely the most exciting thing I’ve done in Japan.” I think Yusuke shook his head at me a bit, as he was generally concerned about safety. Fire walking is most definitely dangerous and accidents can easily happen. Even when things go quite well overall, there is usually some collateral scorching. For instance, Yusuke had burnt off part of his eyebrows last year.

We got the signal that it was time to go and everyone took their positions under the omikoshi. At the last minute, Nao-kun changed places and took position in the back-center, just in front of me. With a coordinated heave, we lifted the omikoshi off its sawhorse rests, and supported its weight with the shared burden of our shoulders. As we moved forward, the sea of onlookers parted, revealing the roaring inferno in all its blazing glory. The spectators, in their positions surrounding the two piles of fire, formed human barriers, borders along our track through hell. I realized at this moment this would be the first time that I would be tackling this challenge completely sober, and my sense of self-preservation—my spider-sense, if you will—started going off like crazy. Clearly, this was not the wisest of activities to engage in.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!” we chanted. “Wasshoi, wasshoi!” But even before we started moving toward the fire, the omikoshi was swaying and stumbling back and forth. The collective guidance of the men of underneath was disorganized at best, disjointed and chaotic. The event staff were there to right the course of the portable shrine, as we veered left and right, unable to stand in one place, nearly crashing into the crowd. The strong hands of these organizers pushed us one way, then the other, but our group had trouble keeping stable footing, like a top-heavy robot dancing on ice.

When we got the green light, the group made a mighty push forward, only to be immediately pulled back before covering a single meter. False start. The organizers nurtured the fire, raking the blaze and throwing on wood shavings to rapidly grow it. We were successful the second time we were unleashed, and we plowed headlong into the blaze. On the way in, I suddenly remembered multiple people telling me that the back of the omikoshi was a hard place to be. This was supposedly because the feet of the men in front agitate the fire, kicking up an even higher wave of flames for those in the rear. It was immediately apparent to me that this assessment was entirely accurate.

Last year’s run in the front of the pack had made me confident that the diving straight through the center of the bonfire—while dangerous—wasn’t necessarily as painful or death-defying as it looked. But that was in front, and now I was in back. This position was a challenge on a whole new level. With my first step into the fire, the flames extended the height of my body, whipping past my face, and the heat enveloped me. Even moving quickly, I thought the soles of my trusty Adidas sneakers were going to melt. After our first pass, the event staff were reaching into our group and slapping people’s bodies, seemingly at random. It took me a moment to realize that they were putting out the small fires that had ignited on people’s clothing. A couple men’s pant legs were on fire, and another man in the middle had a parrot-sized blaze perched on his shoulder. How did I not notice this stuff last year? Apparently being in back also gives you a better perspective of the whole group and just how flammable everyone really is.

With the second pass over the two bonfires, I witnessed Nao, directly in front of me, trying to jump over the center of the fire—the hottest part of the blaze—and instinctively I mimicked his maneuver. But my upward momentum was immediately impeded by the omikoshi above me. It was like finding yourself in a wood burning oven, trying to avoid the searing flames by jumping out, only to hit the ceiling. It felt claustrophobic and instantly terrifying. There was no way out of this.

With each run, the heat felt equally blistering; it didn’t seem possible to acclimate to. My feet were literally plunging into the fire, but it was the rest of my legs that gave me the most intense sensations. The heat would billow into my pant legs, traveling upward quickly, and making me feel like my kneecaps were burning. After the third pass, I audibly expressed my displeasure by saying “Mo yada” (も嫌だ – slang; essentially “I don’t want to do this anymore”). This probably amused anyone who heard it, as it was too late to get out of anything. I had to hope the significant layer of sweat that now coated my body would act as a flame retardant.

After two more fiery passes the ritual was complete, and our ragtag group stumbled and swayed drunkenly to bring the omikoshi to its resting place in front of the shrine. As soon as the weight was off my shoulder, I tore the towel off my face. Boiling with a feverish heat, I needed to breathe the cool night air into my lungs. I so, so glad it was over…for the night. I was still scheduled to have another go at it the following evening.

When I braved the hikuguri again the next night, I made sure to be placed on the side of the omikoshi. This made for some awkward conversation with the organizer, since I had been so supremely confidence before and was now backpedaling. But I had to be firm and stick to a new a cautious plan; there was no way I was going to be running though the middle of a bonfire in back of that beast again. And sure enough, doing the ritual on the outside—even while sober—was far less terrifying and therefore more enjoyable than being in back-center.

In the aftermath of the hikuguri, I found that my shoes had taken much more of beating than they had the year previous. My once white Rod Laver sneakers were now substantially charred; almost uniformly black and gray. In the heat, the tied loops of the shoelaces had fused together. My legs had received a fiery makeover as well, as the lower halves of my shins were suddenly hairless. Some ladies shave, others wax, some use chemical hair removers, but has anyone ever tried simply burning off their leg hair? I can attest to the fact that it works. Additionally, my kneecaps were startlingly hair-free, and my right knee was superficially burned. I’m guessing that the heat had collected in the spot that my pant legs bend. The burn wasn’t severe and pretty much healed overnight.

Despite my best efforts to cover my head, my face didn’t go unaffected by the flames either. My bushy eyebrows got visibly singed, with a small spot in the middle my right brow being scorched off. Even my eyelashes had even been lightly toasted, becoming slightly cauterized at their tips.

Nao, the fellow who had been directly in front of me, was not as lucky as me. His right wrist had sustained a rather severe burn, in about the same place where one would wear a watch. He began icing his injury that very night, but by the next morning, it had formed a large, puffy, watery blister. Yusuke also received blister-inducing burns from the fire walking, but on his neck. Apparently Yusuke always wraps his neck with a third towel. The one time he failed to do this, he got burned.

So the lesson here, kids, is that hikuguri (火くぐり)—running through bonfires—is dangerous. Do not try this at home. But if you happen to be in Shakotan in July, ask about it at the Bikuni Shrine (美国神社). All the cool kids are doing it.


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Bikuni’s Yume Akari

The second week in February is supposedly when Hokkaido’s snowfall reaches its apex. From that point on, the snow will gradually decline, until spring finally appears in all its flowery glory. It’s during this snow peak that many cities in Hokkaido plan their winter festivals, celebrations of snow, lights, and hot beverages. While the winter solstice events were quite beautiful, this week is Hokkaido’s true time to shine, and shine it does.

One of my students had talked up the winter festival in Bikuni town (美国町) quite a bit, so I had high expectations going into it. On Saturday February 11th, the day had arrived for the event called Yume Akari (夢明かり), meaning “Dream Lights” or “Dream Illumination”. My understanding was that everybody in town would be making snow and/or ice lanterns, turning our village into a twinkling, wintery fairyland for one evening.

The Board of Education had scheduled me to participate in an event with the elementary kids that morning, presumably constructing the lanterns and such. I woke up early, donned ski apparel like snow pants and a giant frumpy jacket, and trudged out to the community gym, called B&G. It was a cold and blustery walk, and the snow that blew into my face felt like a bad omen for a day of outdoor winter fun. Still, I enthusiastically pressed on. At B&G, I was directed inside to a meeting a room, where several kids were assembled around tables, like a tiny, warmly-dressed board of directors. Kazama-sensei and Suzuki Harumi-sensei from Hizuka ES were there for adult supervision, as well as Kaneko-sensei from Nozuka ES.  The B&G staff, led by Kawai-sensei, facilitated the event, and my friend Yamazaki-san from the BoE was also assisting.

At 9:30am, the day got started with the students decorating clear plastic bottles. Using markers and colored transparency sheets, each student turned a few plastic bottles into beautiful, modern art candle holders. The multicolored tealight vessels would be used in the center of the snow lanterns, each forming a luminescent core. I walked around the room and enjoyed the out pouring of youthful creativity until the fumes from the giant makers started to make me a little dizzy.

Outside, Yamazaki and the B&G crew were hard at work, turning a mountainous pile of collected snow into a mini sledding slope. I came outside to assist with this effort, but just too late to really contribute. The slope appeared to be smoothed out and Yamazaki had dug some very respectful, architecturally sound snow stairs, right into the hillside. At that point, they really only had use for a test run of their creation, and this honor fell to me. They handed me an inner tube—which was referred to as a “tire tube” (タイヤチューブ)—and slide down the hill, head-first, like a penguin. Not bad at all.

When the kids came outside, we all climbed onto the snow started making lanterns. (I say “climbed onto the snow” because the height difference from the parking lot to the snow covered yard was about five feet.) Kazama-sensei showed me how to make snow lanterns using only a bucket and a gardening trowel. First, you stuff the bucket with snow, packing down into a dense frozen block. Next, you use the trowel to hollow out the center of the bucket, creating a cylinder shape that can house a candle. Then use the trowel to carve a little opening out of one side of the snow cylinder. This will become the viewing window. Finally, you tip the bucket upside-down, give it a few gentle taps to loosen the contents, and carefully place your snow lantern in the desired position. Done.

The school children and I made tons of these snow lanterns. Some ambitious kids even stacked lanterns atop other lanterns for a totem pole effect. Snow was packed down on the edges to form a ledge for display our frosty masterpieces. Additionally, recesses were carved out of the snow wall to create niches from which more lanterns could be displayed. Once the ornately colored plastic bottles were placed inside the snow lanterns, everything started looking quite festive.

After the work was done, and some of the kids had destroyed me in an impromptu snowball fight, it was time to rock the mini sledding slope. The kids took turns flying down the slope on inner tubes and sleds, and a good time was had by all. Eventually went back inside B&G for refreshments. A kind, grandmotherly lady had made lots of handmade doughnuts, as well as a giant cauldron of atsui cocoa (熱いココア – hot coco). Both were excellent and I end up drinking three cups of the chocolaty rich coco.

After the winter fun at B&G, Yamazaki invited me over to his house for lunch. Grandma Yamazaki made soba, which was excellent, and we sat around talking while I drank far too much coffee.  Since it was so close to Valentine’s Day, Saya gave me a box of chocolates. Handmade and delivered in cute pink and red polka dot bag, the chocolates were so incredibly nice that I felt unworthy of receiving them. That day I started a Choco-list, keeping track of who gave me chocolates, for I would need to repay the favor come White Day in March.

Eventually, Yamazaki, Saya, and I ventured outside to get the house all festive for Yume Akari. Using the same technique I had just learned at B&G, we made some snow lanterns using a bucket and trowel. Next, we carved several small hollows out of the snow wall, cave-like recesses just big enough for a tea candle to illuminate. The snow lanterns would crown the top of the snow wall, while the candle hollows would dot the broad side. While Saya and I worked on this wall, Yamazaki-san carved a big heart shape out of another. To keep things interesting, we perforated the heart with candle niches as well. Throughout the process of making snow-candle decorations outside, my hands became more and more cold. I think my hands are generally pretty weak at handling subzero temperatures, but repeatedly packing down snow while wearing subpar gloves led to painful aching. I persevered through the frozen hands though, especially since the snow sculpting was rather fun.

After we had completed our work and returned to the warm house, Grandma Yamazaki had rewarded us with amazake (甘酒). Made from fermented rice, amazake is a sweet white drink, served hot in the wintertime, much like hot coco. The name literally means “sweet sake”, but the drink usually has little to no alcohol left in it – although recipes vary. (I’d assume this is because ethyl alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so boiling your alcohol tends to make it less alcoholic.) The drink is given to kids all the time and is even considered a heath food of sorts.

At four o’clock sharp, fireworks went off to signal the beginning of the Yume Akari festival. I couldn’t see them; only hear their bomb-like blasts. At this point, Yamazaki, Saya, and I headed off to the Yamashime House which has having a kodomo no ennichi (子どもの縁日), or “kid’s fair”. Much like other festival events I have seen, they had lottery games, a popgun shooting gallery, and a candy carving game called katanuki (カタヌキ). In katanuki, you are given a flat, brittle, pretty much tasteless sugar candy with an image imprinted on it. Using only a toothpick, you try to carve out the image following the mold imprint. You have to be very careful to scrape out your shape without breaking the candy, and if you are patient and skillful enough to succeed, you receive a prize. (It’s actually harder than it looks. I’ve tried the game on a couple separate occasions and never succeeded.)

The fair had a very cozy feeling about it, seeing as how outside of the historic Yamashime house was a frosty white blizzard of death – or a winter wonderland, depending on how you look at it – while inside was a safe and joyous occasion. The fiery blaze inside the space heaters kept the chilly old building warm enough, and Yasuda-san used a microwave to prepare takoyaki for anyone peckish.  The power would go out relatively frequently and the lights would go dark, with the crowd of people always producing a sigh in union. Everyone was fairly certain that the building’s electrical system couldn’t handle Yasuda-san’s microwave after all.

Later on, we walked to the center of town to check out the snow lantern displays. The snow had starting falling and whirlwinds were blowing it around everywhere. With the sun long gone it was quite cold. Still, the blizzard conditions made the festival of lights even more magical. Many people had created some sort of wintery decoration outside their houses. Some folks had made snow lanterns, but others had somehow made crystal clear ice lanterns. Many homes – I’m assuming homes with kids – had carved their own elaborate snow sculptures. I saw a couple different One Piece sculptures, including a giant Toni Chopper head complete with colored surfaces reminiscent of a snow cone. One family had done a huge Super Mario head, while their neighbor around the corner had made a near life-sized Mario and Yoshi sculpture that I found incredibly impressive.  Even the Seicomart had a modest display, an old school snowman carrying a broom and a small bottle of sake.

The town’s main intersection was the epicenter of snow lanterns. One corner had a giant heart-shaped sculpture displaying the text Yume Akari (夢あかり), with descending levels of lights underneath it. On the other side of the street, a great dome of snow had been covered with candle niches, now illuminated. A small wall, similarly dotted with fiery hollows and crowned with more snow lanterns, formed a fence-like border.  As the bitter wind picked up, the contrast of warm festival lighting against the dark winter bleakness became more apparent.

While the lights were truly beautiful, the wind wasn’t letting up and eventually I felt good and frozen. When Yamazaki’s son Chikaru met up with us, we took refuge in the white food tent that was set up for the event. Like an igloo, the tent felt quite warm on the inside. The ground was still packed snow, but the tent’s canopy captured all the steam and warmth of the food preparation going on in the corner.(Also, by simply eliminating the wind chill, the interior of the tent felt infinitely warmer.) The festival staff was busy making large cauldrons of oden (おでん – a popular soup dish consisting of multiple disparate ingredients floating in a clear-ish, soy-dashi broth), as well as ika-age (いか揚げ – fried squid) and zangi (ザンギ – fried chicken, as spoken in Hokkaido dialect). Oden can be found at most festivals, especially in the wintertime, and many convenience stores sell it as well. While the individual ingredients can vary greatly, I’ve almost always seen hardboiled egg, daikon, chikuwa (竹輪), and konnyaku (こんにゃく) included. Everyone has their own favorite oden ingredient, but if you prefer something over the daikon, you are wrong. (It’s clearly the best part.)

Yamazaki had purchased meal tickets ahead of time, so after a surprisingly long wait in line, we got our hands on the food. Maybe I was super hungry by that point, or maybe there’s simply nothing better than a hot soup on a cold night, but the food was unbelievably delicious. With each slurp of soup, each bite of fried chicken, I felt like my body was coming back to life, reanimating after cryostasis. After dinner, the Yamazakis returned home for the evening.  Although it was only 7:30pm, with the blizzard conditions out, I too decided to head home. I needed to get up early the next day anyway, for a Sunday trip to Sapporo.

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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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Shakotan Fire Festival: Part 2

Here’s basically how the ritual works; the dashi (山車 – float, festival car) is considered to be a portable Shinto shrine containing a kami (神 – god). The Tomosukai folks push the dashi through every street in town, passing pretty much everyone’s house at some point. The locals come out of their homes and give something to us as an offering to the kami, either money or alcohol, of which I preferred the latter. Instead of just taking peoples’ offering and pushing on, we stopped every so often and danced for everyone in a show of gratitude. And the dancing is what really made the festival an amazing experience for me.

Since Marissa had been visiting at the time that the Tomosukai group held practices for the festival dances, I didn’t attend a single one. Yamazaki-san assured me that during the two days of dancing I would pick up the moves, and he was right. I know that choreographed group dance numbers are done all over the world, but I feel like there’s no place where they are so thoroughly embraced than Japan. Throughout the festival we danced to many different songs, most of which I’ve never learned the names to or I’ve completely forgotten, but I definitely recall us doing the kiddy pop sensation Maru Maru Mori Mori (which I’m pretty sure was the number one single in the country at the time somehow), the old Eurodance hit Dschinghis Khan, 90’s J-Pop hit Hana Matsuri , and the theme to the cartoon Anpanman.

After what felt like only an hour of pushing the dashi and dancing, the Tomosukai group rolled up on a little street fair that had been set up right off the main road. Vendors set up colorful tents on the side of the street. Some sold food, some sold toys and masks, and some sold really random things like Pokemon cards, AKB48 posters, and the latest PS3 and Wii video games. Some of the tents did carnival games, giving kids an opportunity to win trinkets, which they did with relish.

Makoto-san introduced me a pinball-esque ball and peg game called Smartball (スマートボール). The goal of the game was to get the balls to land in round holes on the slanted game board, instead of having them simply roll to the bottom. Pegs placed on the board made it possible for your ball to bounce and change direction all over the place. If you were able to get you’re the balls into specific holes to complete a pattern, you win. I never really came close to winning however, so I don’t know what kind of prize you’re supposed to receive. Makoto-san did really well, but it seemed like he was just given more free plays.

One toy that some of the kids had won was especially interesting to me. It was a squishy, sticky little object in a swirled shape that appeared to be either a pile of feces or soft serve ice cream, I wasn’t sure which. I asked what this squishy toy was called and the kids told me it was “unchi” (うんち). When it was clear that I didn’t know the word unchi, one of the junior high students made a semi-crouching, grimacing, deification gesture. It actually was supposed to be shit after all! Japan is a wondrous place.

For lunch we stopped at Kida-san’s house, the coincidentally was around the corner from my apartment. The spacious double-car garage was setup with tables (the low, Japanese kneeling style ones) and an impressive spread was waiting for us. There were sandwiches, fried chicken, potato wedges, potato salad, meatballs, edamame, shrimp, and an impressive selection of sushi. And of course, there was lots of beer and shochu to drink.

As the kids finished their lunch, many of them ran back to the street fair. Most of the adults chilled out in the garage, and some of pipers played around on their flutes. It seemed like everyone must learn to play the flute at some point, because the instruments got passed around, and everyone from Yamazaki-san to Nao-kun, who had just dropped by from the office for his lunch break, could play the dashi chant melody. Since my father instilled in me a deep appreciation for musicianship, I was immensely impressed.

Our lunch break must have been about an hour, and then we were off, pushing our dashi around town again. We ended up going through a tunnel to reach an even more isolated neighborhood of Bikuni. Following behind the other float, we ended up stopped in the tunnel for a time. This was actually very nice for me because it was the coolest, shadiest spot I’d seen all day. While waiting in the tunnel, I was filled with a post-lunch burst of energy, and played around a bit for kids, running along the tunnel walls like Prince of Persia. The round pipe-like shape of the tunnel, and the unpainted stone it was made out of made for ideal wall-running conditions. The kids, as well as a couple of parents, were quite entertained by my antics.

We emerged on the other side of tunnel in time to the o-mikoshi (お神輿) groups carrying the portable shrines out into the sea. As you’d imagine, the ritual involved them getting soaking wet, and considering the water was frigidly cold, it was fun to watch. While they carried the mikoshi into chest-deep water and vigorously shook it around above the surface, the mikoshi was never actually submerged in the water.

The group stopped for more rest and refreshments, with drinks and snacks being provided by a building that I guessed must have been a traditional Japanese inn.  After 10 or 15 minutes, we continued on, pushing the dashi up an incredibly steep hill that seemed never-ending. Still feeling rather energetic, I took a position at the back center of the festival car and, pushed with all my might. For a moment, I felt like a superhero, providing most of the vehicle’s thrust with my Herculean effort. This was quickly replaced with a feeling of utter exhaustion bordering on nausea. I have no idea how long we climbed that hill, but it feel like an eternity as my legs burned and sweat stung my eyes. When we finally made it to the top, greeted the locals whose houses were there, then simply turned the dashi around and came back down. Bringing the float back down without losing control and ghost riding it into the sea also took serious teamwork.  I wondered if the ordeal was really necessary.

We continued to push the dashi, stopping intermittently to dance for the rest of the afternoon. Around 6:00, all the dashi and mikoshi teams stopped outside B&G, the community gym, for a bento dinner. The weather chilled just as we arrived and in the middle of eating, it even rained on us, which was downright cold. The inclement weather was short-lived however, and went right back to stifling hot. Luckily, since the sun was going down soon, the temperature was about to be perfect.

I had grabbed a beer to drink with my bento, but as I looked for a spot to sit down, some local older gentleman called me over to share sake with them. Never one to turn down an opportunity to bond over alcohol, I humbly obliged.  These particular men were ceremoniously dressed up in matching light blue kimonos, which had exaggerated flared out shoulders. The ensemble was complete a large flat disk-shaped bamboo hat and geta (下駄), Japanese wooden sandals. The outfits made them really look like samurai. I struggled to converse with them in Japanese, and they seemed satisfied with my effort.

After dinner, the dashi pushing continued, winding through some of the smaller residential streets. As the sun when down, the lights and lanterns on the floats were turned on, making our Tomosukai float luminously live up to name. By the light of float we continued with our group dance routines, partying like one does at a festival. At some point, Yoshimura-sensei and Itagaki-sensei (Yusuke), who had just returned victorious from a regional badminton tournament, found me and beckoned me to come with them. I had forgotten that I had agreed to come participate in the festival’s most spectacular event, but they informed me that it was almost time for us to walk through fire.

We walked straight to Bikuni shrine. A crowd had formed on both sides of the path where the fire walking would take place and a small crew was getting large piles of wood shavings ready for burning. We entered the shrine house, where I believe the Shinto priest actually lives, and there we were met by Masui-sensei and Miyakawa-sensei. Bikuni JH was going to be well represented in our group. A grandmotherly lady gave each of us white cotton pants, a white long sleeve shirt, a white pair of gloves, and two white towels. As we were changing into our fire walking outfits, Yusuke explained to me that the two towels were for covering head and face, ninja-style. I was warned to leave only my eyes uncovered, and to make especially sure that my eyebrows were not exposed.  Yoshimura-sensei was adamant that someone has their eyebrows singed off every year.

All ninja’ed up, we walked outside to our starting point. The mikoshi was resting on its stand, with similarly dressed ninjas milling about around it. A man with a clipboard started calling out names and directing each person to their spot on the portable shrine. The mikoshi’s base was comprised of wooden beams, which allowed for many people to shoulder the burden at once. I discovered that I wasn’t actually going to supporting the weight of the mikoshi, instead I was supposed to run alongside it, ringing bells on a rope that was attached to the top of the shrine. The news was simultaneously a relief and disappointment. Could I really claim that I fire walked if I was only on the periphery of the action?

The Tengu was the first to walk through the fire, and the crowd oo’ed and ah’ed. While we waited for our moment of truth, the man with the clipboard now walked around with a giant bottle of sake. He poured the drink into plastic cups for each of the fire walkers that wished to partake. I drank my cup of sake, as well as Yoshimura-sensei’s as he didn’t want it, being very careful not to spill any on my face towel. I didn’t know if the sake was really flammable, but I also wasn’t in a hurry to find out. We got the signal to get started, and the mikoshi was lifted up on everyone’s shoulders. I had my left hand on the end of one of the beams and my right clutched the bell rope, but I wasn’t supporting the mikoshi’s weight at all.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi! Wasshoi, wasshoi!” (わっしょい、わっしょい!)

Everyone started chanting and the mikoshi was heaved up and down. There was an anxious feeling in the air as well chanted and bobbed in place, growing more and more rowdy as tension mounted. People started pushing, both the crew outside our group, and the members of the group itself. Generally, the man behind you kept his free had on your shoulder, shoving or pulling you, to guide each other for  better group cohesiveness.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

The crowd that had been watching the Tengu parted like the Red Sea for us and I got an unobstructed view of the blaze. The crew skillfully used long streamer-like strips of wood to produce a wall of flames on the path, which ebbed and flowed. When the flame was at its low point, it was at knee height, about the size of a regular campfire. But at its high point, the flame leapt up to head height, at least six feet in the air.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

Worked into a proper frenzy, the group teetered and staggered left and right, while shaking the mikoshi in violent rhythm.  We started to move forward towards the flame, only to be pushed back by the crew. Apparently the inferno wasn’t quite big enough yet. They crew added more fuel to the fire and our group outright jumped up and down in place. Then they gave us the ‘all clear’.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

With a heave-ho, we ran forward into the flames. Even from my sidecar position, I could feel the fire’s heat, although I’m certain it was more intense for those closer to the center. My left side, which was facing the blaze, felt like a marshmallow on its way to becoming part of a smore. I was extremely grateful for the loan pants, for if I had been wearing my synthetic material track pants, they surely would have melted like candle wax.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

There were actually two bonfires to pass through and we were quickly on the other side. Once across, the mikoshi was promptly turned around, and the group bobbed and chanted in place for a moment. We were going back through again! Some more wood shavings were thrown on the fire, the flames grew higher again, and we ran back through, going the other direction. Back at our starting point, the mikoshi was again turned around and aimed at the fire. In no time we were running through the fire again.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

I think we made five passes through the fire before we were finished. And after us, the next mikoshi team immediately mad their run. I don’t even know how many different groups ran through the flames.

Making it to the other side unscathed, I thought that my position on the side of mikoshi—instead of underneath it—made for a half-assed fire walking attempt. Sure, it was damn hot for me, but not nearly as hot as it must have been for the guys doing the carrying, especially the men in the middle positions. The level of danger was much less too. I had heard that last year a woman had tripped and fallen into the fire, but if I had fallen, I would have been safely clear of any burning hazard.

My fellow teachers and I returned to the shrine house and changed back into our street clothes.  We talked about how hot the inferno had been, and happily laughed about our fortunate survival. I felt a little insecure, now sure that my experience was like the Diet Coke version of theirs. Yusuke told me that his eyebrow and sideburns had been singed slightly and his face shown an expression of shocked amusement. He noticed I was wearing my usual Adidas sneakers and asked if I had other shoes at home. I told him that this was my only pair at the moment and he smiled. “You’ll probably need to buy new shoes,” he said.

After the fire walking festivities, the festival was done for the night, and we returned the Tomosukai dashi to its garage. Makoto-san and some of the younger guys were still down for more fun, so we went out for more food and drinks at Yamatomi. We didn’t over do it, since there was still another full day of the festival to go. I was home and sleeping around midnight.

To Be つづく’ed…


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