Fire Festivals Light Up March

By Odigo Contributor BRYAN BAIER

FIRE! Before the cherry blossoms bloom and the weather turns fair, March in Japan rages with fire festivals, cremating the last chill of winter and the withered brown footprint of plants wrought in its wake.
Mt. Aso Fire Festival photo by the Tourism Division, Kumamoto Prefectural Government
Fire on pine bough torches paraded back and forth across a wooden temple’s deck by Buddhist priests who shower worshipers with glowing sparks and embers; consuming creative and painstakingly constructed pine and woven straw floats while extravagantly dressed and made up festival goers cheer and revel in their destruction; engulfing entire mountainsides after spreading from a massive bonfire arranged into the kanji character for fire and lighting up the night for the viewing pleasure of all who assemble to watch. Check out three of Japan’s spectacular, March fire festivals in ascending order.

[March 1st-14th] Omizutori - Nara City NARA

Omizu-tori Ash Sprinkling Ceremony at Nigatsu-do from Flickr cc by Neil Hunt
  • Venue: Todaiji Temple’s Nigatsu-do Hall
  • Other Information: This festival has a history stretching back nearly 1300 years making it the oldest festival on this list
  • Access: Bus from JR or Kintetsu Nara Station to Kasuga Taisha Honden Bus Stop and walk north to Nigatsudo Hall
Strangely for this list of fire festivals, the Buddhist Omizutori is, as its Japanese name suggests, is a water drawing festival?! Mizu, meaning water and, torimeaning to draw or take up, and the “o” delineating the sacred nature of the occasion. The Omizutori is the final event of the 2 week long Shunie Ceremony. The ceremony is held to cleanse people of their sins, pray for a bountiful year and usher in spring. Early on the morning of March 13th, a small group of specially select priests draw water from a well in front of Nigatsu-do Hall and offer it first to the deities of Todaiji Temple and then to worshippers. According to legend this sacred water only springs up in the well on this day. The well at Nigatsu-do Hall is said to connect via an underground tunnel to a far away well at Jinguji Temple in Obama City on the Sea of Japan Coast in Fukui Prefecture. At Jinguji, they even perform a “Sending of the Water” ceremony to facilitate the Omizutori in Nara.
The fiery element of the Omizutori comes on the opening night of the Shunie Ceremony on the first of March. Once it grows dark, large pine bough otaimatsu torches are swung in circles, rolled along the railing and paraded across the deck of the Nigatsu-do purifying the space for the the Shunie Ceremony. This spectacular event in rooted in the belief that anyone who is showered by the sparks and embers from the burning otaimatsu torches will be protected from evil in the coming year.
[A weekend in mid-March] Sagicho Matsuri - Omihachiman City, Shiga Prefecture
Sagicho Matsuri (Sagicho Festival) photo from Omihachiman Tourism Association

Bryan Baier