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It was a blustery, dusty March day when we boarded the train to attend the Mt Takao Firewalking Ceremony. Later we heard that the blowing “dust” was actually red/yellow sand blowing across the Sea of Japan from China. Tokyo was engulfed in a yellow-looking cloud and some weather reports urged people to stay indoors (oh well…). Although the wind was still blustery, the air seemed clearer in the mountains when we arrived in Takao. We walked through the streets enticed by the different aromas of foods being cooked/grilled, many on  grills/stoves outside the little cafes. It was only a short 15 minute walk from the train station to the “arena” ( a large square roped area about 20 yards square, but with no permanent seating).

People were standing 3 or 4 deep waiting for the ceremony to begin. We climbed a small hill to have a better view, but we still had to stand behind 3-4 rows of people but at least we were on an incline and could see better. Our friend Danny pointed out the line of spectators waiting in line to do the firewalking. The line began down the hill at the arena (about 50 yards downhill from us) stretched up the hill and behind us about 10 yards where it ended.  It appeared that I had to choose between getting to SEE the ceremony and getting in line to actually WALK across the coals.  Wanting to have my cake and eat it too (as my mother would say), I decided to stay where I was, watch the ceremony and then get in line afterward if the line was moving quickly.

The Hiwatari-sai (firewalking), a ceremony of purification, began with monks entering the arena after a processional of sorts up the street. Most of the monks were in white/beige with some of the higher ranking ones wearing purple, green and orange (for the one highest ranking monk). Two huge drums are played in a slow, rhythmic cadence during the entrance and at different times throughout the ceremony.  Banners (representing different temples, I think) were carried in and each banner was dipped (like a bow) in front of a huge altar-type arrangement with statues of Buddha, Tengu (protector of temple) and others I couldn’t identify.  Also big spheres made of flag-type symbols on long sticks are carried in on shoulders of monks and placed in front of the altar.

In the center of the arena was a large mound (about 10 yards square) of greenery covering a structure of planks and sticks made of pine.  Leaning against the mound were large planks with Japanese characters seeming similar to the small nadegi sticks we have seen at temples.  The nagedi are inscribed with the hopes and wishes of Buddhist believers, possibly at any time, but definitely at the beginning of the new year.  The monks, having filed in surrounded the mound on all four sides.  There was a fire under each of two huge black pots (think cauldrons) of steaming hot water at one end of the arena that is constantly fed by several monks throwing wood on the already red-hot coals.

There is so much ritual and ceremony that I cannot describe it all but will try to hit on the atmosphere and a few of the highlights. The ceremony lasted for about 1.5 hours before the firewalking even began.  But intermittently throughout the ceremony monks chanted and drums would dramatically pound out a cadence along with the occasional tinkling of small bells, the shaking of a stick-like instrument (possibly with something inside which reminded me of the “rain sticks” you can get in the U.S.) and the sound of horn-like instrument that looked like a decorated gourd.  Monks read from what appeared to be scrolls while one person appeared to have the job of rolling up the scrolls as the reading was taking place.

Several rituals stood out to me.  At one point a monk shot an arrow high in the air, into the crowd, in each of the four corners of the arena.  It must be good luck or something because spectators tussled a bit to catch an arrow if it came near them (like catching a baseball at a major league baseball game).  Later 1 monk took his place in front of each of the two boiling cauldrons of water.  Each monk then took off his outer shirt-like garment and was given branches of olives leaves.  Chanting continually, the monks dipped the branches in the boiling water and waved them around tapping each side and the back rim of the cauldrons.  Then dipping the branches in the water again, they waved the branches backward over their heads and almost touching their back with the olive branches so that (it seemed) the boiling water would drip on their backs!

Of course the most interesting aspect of the ceremony was the fire and the firewalking.  To start the hug mound ablaze, one monk on each side of the square mound opened what appeared to be a small “door” in the bottom of the mound and inserted a burning plank underneath the mound.  Almost immediately, the thick gray smoke began to rise from the mound.  Other monks joined in, further lighting the mound with the large (nagedi?) planks that were leaning against the mound.  Soon the fire erupted and grew so large and so high that, because the wind was so high,  the crowd on one side of the arena had to move back.  Monks then began throwing the small nagedi (that were stacked along the perimeter of the arena) in the fire.  It is believed that when thrown on the fire, the wishes inscribed on each nagedi will be taken to heaven via the smoke from the fire.  This continues for about 20 minutes as the fire grew hotter and hotter.

Soon monks ceremonially entered with 4 piles of salt stacked on some type of thick fabric.  Two of the salt piles were placed on one side of the burning mound and two on the opposite side.  Monks and spectators who walk on the hot coals step into the salt before their walk and then also step into the salt  as soon as the finish their walk.  After walking the coals and stepping in the salt, the highest ranking monk (in the orange robe) says a blessing to each person.  After what appeared to be prayers, 2 lines of monks began their walk over the coals. I am not sure how hot the actual path was through the coals but I can tell you that there were glowing red hot coals in what was left of that mound.

When all the monks finished their walk, they allowed spectators to begin.  I turned to see if I could get in the line (which had ended just behind us when we arrived) to find that the line had at least doubled in length and I couldn’t even see the end.  So my firewalking plans were dashed as I chose not to wait in a line that long.  Our group was ready to leave so we headed for the train.  But…next year, the second Sunday in March, I want to be a firewalker!  Who’s with me???