Firewalking at Mt. Takao-a dramatic way to purify

In many cultures, fire is regarded as a great purifier.  Japanese Buddhism is one such culture, and one of the most dramatic purification rituals is firewalking.

A chance to observe this tradition first hand is coming up on March 12, 2017, so if you’ll be in Tokyo, mark your calendar and make plans to go to the annual firewalking festival of Yakuo-in Temple.

Yakuo-in is a Shingon sect Buddhist temple on the flanks of Mt. Takao, in the small mountain range that forms Tokyo’s western boundary.  Mt. Takao is a popular day trip from Tokyo year-round.

Founded more than 1,250 years ago, Yakuo-in became particularly affiliated with mountain asceticism (called Shugendo) in the late 14th century.  It was at this time that the temple’s primary deity, Fudo Myo-o (the Immovable King), appeared during a goma fire ritual–an esoteric practice meant to cleanse away bad luck and evil spirits–as Izuna Daigongen, an incarnation of Fudo Myo-o thought to provide happiness and security to the daily lives of worshipers and protect them from harm. Needless to say, these are important blessings, so it is little wonder that the tradition of the goma fire ritual includes a firewalking festival that has been passed down through the ages.

These days the ritual is said to include prayers for world peace, good health, disaster-prevention, traffic safety, and personal safety.  Something for everyone.

For Shugenja (devotees of Shugendo), participating in the firewalking ritual begins at the temple on the mountain early in the day with various prayers and cleansing rituals, followed by a long processional walk down the mountain to the site of the firewalking.  For those who only want to watch the main event, plan arrive at the site near Takaosanguchi Station between 12:30 and 1 pm.

The Shugenja are dressed in traditional white or cream-colored pilgrim’s garb, although their priests are resplendent in purple robes.  Nearly all of the pilgrims have a patch of deer hide hanging from their belts behind them and straps holding bells slung over their shoulders.  They are chanting and from time to time conch shells are trumpeted.

Some of the Shugenja are carrying stretchers holding what looks like giant lotus bulbs.  On closer examination it turns out to be goma-gi, special prayer sticks that have been arranged in this shape for purposes of the procession.  People inscribe prayers on these goma-gi so they can be sent to the gods in flames.

As the Shugenja  reach the bottom of the mountain, they pass the terminal of the ropeway/cable car that many visitors use to ascend the mountain and proceed along the laneway to the highway and then to the site of Yakuo-in’s car blessing ritual, which is where a large pyre of green boughs is roped off and waiting to be set alight.   At one side is an altar and statues of Izuna Daigongen and other deities brought down from the temple.

Expect a large crowd.  You’ll find food and souvenir stalls, as well as the chance to purchase a goma-gi on which you can add your own prayer to be sent up in flames.  There is a small hill on one side that is popular with the audience, since it affords a good view.

The pilgrims who have descended the mountain line up on the four sides of the fire site while various rituals are observed to ensure that the site has been suitably purified.  First, a flint is struck at each of the four corners of the site.  Next a sword symbolically cuts the wickedness from the site.  Finally, arrows are shot in the four main compass directions to further ward away evil.  During all this, designated Shugenja are self-flagellating with bamboo branches that have been dipped in the water boiling in a large cauldron on the site.

It’s a lot of pomp and ceremony, but finally all is in readiness and the pyre is set alight at several spots on each side. Although it takes a little bit of time to really catch, when it finally gets going it’s the biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen!  As the flames lick the air, dark smoke from the green boughs billows upward and drifts on the wind.  The heat can be felt even from the distance of the observation area.  The goma-gi sticks are added as the fire burns.  The area around the pyre is kept clear and well-watered, to ensure the fire doesn’t get out of control.  Local firefighters wait at a discreet distance, just in case.

When the flames have burned down, acolytes begin to rake and manipulate the coals into piles to make two paths in preparation for the firewalking.  As a result, people aren’t really walking over hot coals so much as they are walking through the smoldering pyre.  As the Shugenja finish their walk along these paths, they bow to the statue of Izuna Daigongen at the altar, completing their purification.

When all the Shugenja have finished, many in the audience also line up to walk through.  Needless to say, shoes and socks must be removed; this is a barefoot exercise.  I wound up toward the end of the line, so by the time I did it, the pathway was completely cold–although some piles of ash here and there may have been still smoldering.  The experience didn’t leave me feeling particularly purified; in fact, my feet were cold and covered with soot and ash when I finished (travel trip: have a towel or some wet wipes on hand).  Still, I can say I’ve done it!  And if I do it again, perhaps I’ll try to be closer to the head of the line.

The Takao Firewalking Festival is an annual event taking place on the second Sunday of March, so if you can’t make it this year, you’ll have another chance.

Access:  It takes about an hour to get to Takaosan-guchi station from Shinjuku station via the Keio line, or take the JR Chuo line to Takao station and transfer to the Keio line to Takaosan-guchi station.

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