Monday, March 09, 2009


It was Monday, and we were driving above a fast river, wheels pointed north. High mountains loomed at the head of the valley, looking quite smart in their winter outfits, in obvious emulation of their older Himalayan siblings. The look was accessorized with the rustic temples clinging to the hillsides, clumps of snow piled in their shadows. A grove of well-lined cedars lined the banks of the river. At one bend, a whole section of them had slipped into the water, taking out a large section of road in the process. The shabby makeshift bridge built nearby added further color to an already remote scene.

We arrived at Jingu-ji just before dark. Any temples with this moniker are the last remnants of the old Shinto-Buddhist connection which nearly became extinct with the coming of Meiji. This Jingu-ji, just south of Obama city, is perhaps the most famous, and is host to the Omizu-okuri festival every March 2nd. An acquaintance had a home just below the temple, and after a warming cup of tea in front of the Franklin stove, we walked out into the cold night. A few hundred people were gearing up, standing in front of the temple. A couple sections had been roped off, and at their centers a large pile of logs had been stacked, covered over by their soft needles. The air in this mountain valley was clear and revealed many stars, a crescent moon. Chanting had been going on for some time, punctuated by the occasional bellow of a conch shell. At seven, a bright light appeared within the main hall of the temple, and suddenly, a man shrouded in white appeared from within, carrying a massive fireball, which looked like a two meter smudge of sage lit aflame. Fire roared up into the rafters, brushing the curtains and punching out at the crowd. It's incredible that the whole place didn't go up. These shrouded men (covered head to toe in white and looking a little too similar to Klansmen) were accompanied by an entourage of yamabushi, who ran through a series of chants and mudras, twirling swords and axes, and even shooting arrows dangerously into the crowd. Then the pyre was lit, flames quickly shooting 10 meters up, in a swirling attempt to touch the stars. (Watching the upper limits of a fire this size and the shapes it makes reveals why we say "tongues of flame.") The wind was down, but the heat was belching up an incredible amount of sparks, going up like fireworks and coming down like grey snow. The heat also sent up sections of cypress needles the size of human hands, which would twirl slowly and teasingly like a bully, to fall down over the crowd whose collective volume would increase with their fear. The shrouded men brought the flaming bush back out through the crowd, who due to the heat began to push back, creating a dangerous chain reaction where the lot of us were collectively heaved backward, like the undulating movement of fire, of water. I knew then why I'd been warned not to wear my fleece hat. The fireball was carried down toward the river, and the crowd began to move toward the pyre left behind to light the goma sticks we carried. These were a length of thick rope tied together with four sticks of gomagi (a word that Ken Rodgers tells me has Indian roots). The crowd was still dangerously pushing, but this time toward the flames. Like everyone else, I fended for balance, until I noticed some open space to my right, so pushed my way out of the crowd. The was no perimeter to keep us in, and I couldn't figure out why everyone stayed herded together like that. I walked easily toward a small building which upon closer view contained an old well cut into the forest floor. This was the source of the water drawn earlier that had been purified by the flame. I took a sip. Very sweet. There was a huge tree just in front, its trunk old and twisted and swirling in the opposite direction than the flames had earlier on. Pure shamanistic magic this. Miki and our friends found me here, Juri leaning in close to the tree, sticking her face into a hollow knot like a deep kiss.

We then lit our gomaki from the incredibly hot embers in front of the tree and followed the crowds down the steps and alongside the river. What I saw before me was hundreds of people stretched down the river carrying torches as if looking for Frankenstein's monster. The yoga teacher in me suggests a more spiritual metaphor, of people using this sacred fire to light up the dark places of the soul, in order to root out the beasties that lurk there. But I know that the majority of the people here were taking part in this event for less serious reasons. And why not, there were snacks and cold beer waiting back on the tour bus. Our own group of a dozen had once again found each other somehow. Two of our friends had wrapped themselves in white cloth in protection from the heat, and we quickly dubbed them the Zoroastrians. We all followed the crowd upriver. I was amazed at how careless people were, considering they had 20cm flames extending from their outstretched arms. They'd turn quickly to shoot photos, or suddenly change direction. Beside minding both flanks, you had to take care not to trod on the many pieces of wood which had fallen to the ground and were still lit. Along the sides of the path were iron pots set up for people to drop their torches into. The further we'd go, the more had collected, the cumulative flames getting higher and higher. Miki and I laughed at one middle-aged woman looking quite panicked as the flames burned closer to her hand. Another man with an even shorter torch walked very deliberately. My own had burned pretty fast, and when the flame was about 15 inches, I mock run, holding my flame aloft like it's the Olympic torch. When it got down to 8 inches, I'm running for real, wanting to take this to the end, not wanting to add my flame to the others littering the road, which by now looks out of the Paris riots of '68. And how much this is like how we live our lives, trying to burn, burn, burn, trying to draw the energy out of every endeavor, and refusing to give up before those around us. Yet our flames will burn out when they will, and for those whose lives burn out of control, there's always the choice to let go, be it the literal corporeal release of suicide, or opting for the more peaceful (though challenging) path of transcendence, where we get to keep our flesh, yet must alter our relationship with it. I finally reach the end to find the crowd slowly funneling through a Torii arch and down a path to the river's bank. I mentally yell at them to let me pass, to let me add my fire to that already burning high and hot beside the water. Then I suddenly realize that we were never meant to carry them that far, and I extinguish my torch in a pail of water. I move with the crowd to the fireside, where the yamabushi are carrying out more rituals. They then cross a bridge to the other side of the river, where the head priest pours the purified water into the fast moving current. From here, an underground stream will carry the water to Nara's Nigatsudo where a similar ceremony will take place on March 13. The water will have moved along a ley line that takes it past Kurama, Kamigamo, Shimogama, Jonangu, and beyond Nara to the sacred sites further on, Tenkawa, Kumano Hongu, marking the coming of spring, as it has for 1300 years. We watch awhile the rushing water tinted red by fire. Then we turn and slowly head back down river. Like fire, like water, and like Spring, always returning.

On the turntable: Kokoo, "Super Nova"

On the nighttable: Swami Buddhananda, "Moola Bandha: The Master Key"

On the reel table: "A Man Called Horse" (Silverstein, 1970)

1 comment:

Project Hyakumeizan said...

This is a most compelling account of a most extraordinary ritual. Despite a number of years living in Japan, I'd never heard of this festival - so doubly indebted to you for reporting on it and reporting so graphically....