While November is fire prevention month in Japan, on our island we are out deliberately starting fires. And during this dry time of year with crispy leaves and fallen twigs, the likelihood of setting the entire island on fire is at its highest. But fire is one of the many ways the island people communicate with the gods.
Thus, in mid November every year, we have a fire ceremony to ask the gods for protection until spring, when we will have another fire ceremony.
The ceremony takes place around a goma-dan, a stage set on the grass and outlined Shinto-style with rope from which strips of white gohei paper hang. Their shape resembles lightning bolts. An altar is set up with two large candles and offerings of fruit and fish.
It is a typical autumn day: blue skies, sunshine and ferocious winds. Man-chan and Kio-chan are readying the stage. We are all gathered around the goma-dan, a huge pile of pine tree branches soon to be torched. The two men are dressed in all white and are assistants to the yamabushi mountain ascetic priest who performs the ceremony. Man-chan holds a staff that jingles when he shakes it and Kio-chan holds a large wooden placard with decorative kanji splashed over it.
But before the fire ceremony can start, the islanders must dance to appease the souls of the Heike warriors who died in the Inland Sea over 800 years ago. Since many of the dead warriors washed up on the beaches on the backside of our island, it is still believed that those beaches are haunted and no one will buy, sell or develop the land there. It is these souls we are attempting to appease.
I sometimes wonder for how long we will have to appease the Heike souls. One would think a few hundred years would be enough. But still the islanders perform this dance and wear the traditional costumes even today. It’s surprising a hip-hop version hasn’t come out yet.
The fire attempts to start early when one of the hanging gohei lightning bolts is blown by the wind into the candle flame. The lightening bolt has struck, but is quickly put out. The fire must wait.
When the dance is over, the yamabushi holds out a short sword and makes a symbolic slash through the air to open up the ceremony in front of the goma-dan. He takes the big wooden placard from Kio-chan and reads out a list of words by taking a big breath and stringing the words together in all in one breath until it sounds more like he is chanting a sutra. The first word is kaijo anzen (safety at sea) and what follows is a bunch of other anzen until his breath is exhausted. He takes another breath, and rattles off more of the anzen: traffic, health, marriage and family.
The assistants touch the mountain of pine branches with their torches and the fire crackles to life. Smoke rises in furls of white, black and brown that swirl and swirl as they are fed by the wind. Then Man-chan shakes his staff and the yamabushi starts tossing votive plaques into the fire, one by one, saying a prayer before each toss.
Meanwhile, a healthy wind is forming and blowing down the side of the mountain into the clearing where we are assembled.
The islanders are standing reciting the Hanya Shingyo sutra over and over while holding on to a giant set of juzu (wooden rosary beads). This juzu is a very long rope that everyone holds on to a part of. The rope encircles the fire where people stand moving the wooden beads down the rope from hand to hand, each wooden ball clacking against the next in constant movement.
The smoke thickens and spreads until it is so thick I can’t see anyone anymore. But no one tries to escape from the smoke. As the fire continues to grow and the furls of smoke become more furious, one of the women holding the juzu chants louder and louder. The beads are passed more furiously until they match the heat and agitation of the fire. The smoke thickens and the conditions continue to deteriorate among the clack clack of the rosary beads hitting each other as they are passed around the circle.
This is the high point of the ceremony, the point where if you were in any South Eastern Asian country, people would go into a trance. But here in Japan, you remain entranced inside, contained in a frenzy where you alone are taming a dragon, and this inward struggle is what serves to discipline your emotions.
A howling wind approaches and stokes the fire, encouraging it to crackle more furiously and burn even faster. As the smoke encircles people, they start to cough. But still no one moves.
Black and orange glowing ashes start showering down all over us. Holes are burning into the white cover of the altar in front of me. We will perish!
But before we can, the smoke magically lifts and red autumn leaves stand out against a blue sky. I look in front of us and the fire has quite suddenly died down and is almost completely finished.