Oto Matsuri: Shingu City’s Fire Festival

Shingu City held its annual fire festival on Monday, February 6th. Mi-Kumano held a test tour and seven participants took part. Some of the participants entered the festval as Noboriko (People Who Go Up), while some watched the festival from below.

The fire festival is a new year celebration and a festival of purification, which can include a fast from meat for a few days prior or a ritual wash in the ocean, river, or a hot spring. Our group started our purification with the traditional pre-festival dinner of white foods, including a tofu hotpot, local fish sausage, white miso soup, daikon pickles, and rice balls with no filling.

After the meal the Noboriko changed into their festival clothing, which is all white and includes straw sandals and a thick rope wrapped around the waist 3, 5, or 7 times. They marked their torches with their name and age, and four wishes for the new year. Wishes are often written and burned in various ceremonies; using your own torch to send your wishes skyward is an interesting variation.

Dusk was setting in when we went back outside and accompanied the Noboriko on their walk to the clifftop shrine. Supporting pilgrims with food and lodging has long been a tradition in Japan, and as we jostled along with the 1700 other participants we received hot amazake from some families and stores along the route. We stopped at Asuka Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine, and Miyoshin-ji Temple for them to pray, and waited at the foot of the steep stone stairs to Kamikura Shrine as they climbed up for the final stage of the festival.

It had started to rain harder as we walked along the route, and the Noborikos’ clothing was starting to stick to their bodies. As all 1700 of them climbed up and packed into the shrine grounds the rain came down harder and harder, and those of us waiting at the bottom found a café to warm up with coffee and cocoa and visited some local stores to learn about fish, pickles, and sake from the Shingu area.

Most years, Noboriko light their torches in large fires at the shrine and run down the steps, creating a river of fire down the mountainside that Shingu citizens call the “Descending Dragon.” This year, though, most people’s torches were too wet to light well, so the Noboriko ran down the steps through the smoke of damp wood, and the spectators were disappointed not to be able to see the Descending Dragon.

Regrouping at the restaurant, our Noboriko peeled off their drenched clothing and we all warmed up with the traditional post-festival meal—a richer hotpot, three types of sushi made from saury, kelp, and pickled mustard leaves, sashimi, and sake for the non-drivers. Traditionally, the men would run down from the shrine and continue home with their torches to light the first fire of the new year, and use that fire to make this meal. Tonight the Noboriko were happy to have the hotpot ready as soon as they changed clothes!

Even residents of Shingu don’t always eat these two traditional meals, so having them caringly prepared by Carrot Cafe was a special addition to our festival experience.

Navigating with two groups through a throng of Noboriko and other participants was a learning experience for our guides, and we will be ready for good weather and a bigger group next year.