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.

The participants are known as noboriko, "those who go up," a reference to the evening climb of Chihogamine mountain, where these men will join 2,000 others to share the sacred fire and sprint down the craggy steps carrying nothing but their torches to guide them in the darkness.