Growing up in the States means growing up with constant reminders of fire safety, fire drills and Smoky the Bear's voice ingrained in my skull. I don't know about you, but I always thought you weren't supposed to play with fire, let alone run through the streets with a torch on your back. Needless to say it was pretty exhilarating to arrive at Kurama and see the streets a lite with flame. We biked from Downtown where we saw the Jidai Maturi up to Kurama mountain. Most people take the train but since Kurama is a small village and the festival is quite popular you can expect to wait a long time for a train. Someone had advised us to take our bikes and it wasn't an easy bike ride, but it was well worth it. I was especially psyched when we went to leave and we were just able to coast on home.Anyways, we arrived at the base of Kurama, parked our bikes and started walking up the main road towards the festival. The air smelled like smoky pine and all of the houses were decorated or had someone tending a flame outside of them.
The locals gathered around the houses and got these large torches ready while some of the younger children and their parents walked up and down the road with smaller ones. While carrying the flames people would chant "Saya, Sairo" which means "festival, good festival." It's sort of a walking chant like "one, two, one, two."
The men preparing to carry the torches wore loin clothes and these decorative sleeves that mimicked tattoos. A lot of them wore headbands or sashes and some had these skirts. Most of them also had traditional sandals and socks on. It wasn't freezing out but it was the end of October. I wouldn't want to be running around without pants on.
This guy is lighting the small torch so he can ignite the much larger one behind him. These larger torches require at least 4-5 men to carry them and are made from pinewood, probably from the local trees.
I'm not sure how important the original meaning of this festival is to the people living here now, but the act of passing on this tradition to future generations does seem very important. Even as a foreigner this point is evident with the participation of different generations. Everyone from small children to elderly men are given a part to play.
Local people and tourists watching while younger children hold much smaller torches. Many of the younger children were dressed up for the occasion in beautiful kimono.
Close up of men carrying torch by the crowd. The bearing of the torches is done by the strong and younger men.
This is what the torch looks like, its made up of much smaller branches and tied together with these big roots or vines. It smelled delicious.
This man is getting ready to carry a flame, I was trying to get some good butt shots, but he kept moving. Probably because it was cold out.
My buddies and I hanging out by the large bonfires reviewing photos and waiting for the action to begin.
We tried to find a good spot on the street to watch from but we kept getting moved along by the police. Originally the festival was to scare bad spirits or kami out of the area. It is said that the king of the tengu lives on this mountain. The tengu depicted on Kurama have large red noses, they are said to do all kinds of horrible things like abduct children.
This festival was so different from the one we had seen earlier in the day. Jidai Matsuri was all about presentation and beauty. This festival was so much more representative of the basic beliefs of the Japanese people. It was really fun to experience the Japanese in a situation like this that allowed them to cut loose a little. Honestly, it feels that little of this festival has changed over the years and I think that alone makes it unique.
In case you couldn't tell, I had a hard time photographing the whole night. I somehow forgot that my camera's one weakness is low lighting, especially paired with fast movement. I still managed to get a bunch of shots I was happy with. This one gives you a good sense of how fast some of these men were running by with the torches.
It was pretty exciting when these guys dropped the torch right in front of us. It was equally impressive how fast others were able to step in and assist. Do you think they practice?
At some point the procession seemed to move up the mountain so we walked further along and watched as other people carried large instruments like this. When they walked it would clang kind of like a bell. There were also very large drums that were played by women and people chanting to the beat.
They started to gather around this bend in the street and letting the torches burn while they held them in place. It was like watching a giant ice cream cone melt, except with fire.
Then many of the torches were stood up on their ends like this. This position was not so great, because it allowed the burning embers to fall and hit the guys holding onto the torch. Does this image can give you a good sense of scale?
If you look closely you can see people still holding up the torches as they burn and the smoke is starting to build up.
Other people walked around with ladles of water, just in case. They controlled where the fire was burning and help the torch bearers keep an eye on the flame.
It was very crowded in this part of the street but we all stood their watching, waiting to see what would happen next.
It continued to get really smokey and the festival carried on feeling very primal at times with the men struggling together to hold up these large torches of fire.
There was quite a lot of smoke and they continued further up the mountain towards the shrine. The crowd was allowed to follow, but only so far. We watched for awhile as the men carried a portable shrine down the mountain as well as other men who were sort of crowd surfing. At this point we were all starting to get cold so we made plans to head back. Unfortunately, the police wouldn't let anyone move for half an hour or so. Finally we were freed and able to walk to our bikes. We biked back down the mountain which was significantly easier then the way up. The lines for the train were very long and I've heard that in can take hours to get back from this festival.
What did I learn? I think we've been approaching fire safety all wrong. The key to being safe with fire is starting kids with small torches at a young age, gradually giving them larger and larger torches. When one is deemed a fully responsible adult then, and only then should they be given a gigantic torch to carry. It's also important that the bare minimum of clothing is worn, this ensures that attention is paid to what they are doing. Otherwise your likely to get a nasty burn... ouch.