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On the polished stones of Ojigahama Beach in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, a group of men stand in the February cold. Dressed in long athletic coats they look like a marooned football team. They’ve come for shiogori, a saltwater baptism to cleanse body and mind and the first act of one of Japan’s two great fire festivals.

For 1,400 years, the Oto Matsuri has endured here, a festival of purity, and fraternity, that is as dangerous as it is beautiful.

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