Monday, August 31, 2009

Mt. Fuji Fire Festival

Festival Highlights

The Mt. Fuji Fire Festival is held every year on August 26 to mark the closing of the Mt. Fuji climbing season. The history of Fire Festival is based on the story of the Goddess Deity of Mt. Fuji “Konohanasakuya Hime no Mikoto” who becomes pregnant and is accused by her deity husband of being un-faithful. To prove her innocence she locks herself in a room of the shrine and sets it afire. If the child lives it will show her dubious husband that it is indeed his child because it could supernaturally endure the heat. According to the legend, the goddesses’ child was born in the middle of the flames, which proved to her husband that he was the father. The flames made by the taimatsu torches represent the fire started by the Goddess of Mt. Fuji to prove her innocence. The goddess enshrined in Fuji Sengen Shrine must be taken out of her home and carried around the streets of Fujiyoshida in order that she learns the value of the city, and decides to keep the volcano from erupting for another year. The goddess' soul is transferred from the shrine into a portable shrine called an “omikoshi,” and is carried through the streets in Fujiyoshida local men.

The day of the Fire Festival, two Mikoshis (portable shrines) are carried out from their protective shelter at Suwa Shrine and tied to large shoulder beams (see photo of mikage mikoshi). The first of these portable shrines is called “myojin mikoshi” meaning “shrine of the great god” and is in the shape of a miniature shrine. The second is a one ton replica of “Mt. Fuji” called “Oyama” or “mikage mikoshi,” meaning mirror (image) of the mountain. As the Mikoshi are carried through the streets of Fujiyoshida at the Fire Festival, there is a rule that Myojin Mikoshi takes the lead and Oyama Mikoshi follows. Extra shoulder beams are prepared in case one splits and breaks. Traditionally, the carriers of Oyama Mikoshi stop for a break and throw the mikoshi to the ground three times. They do this to raise spirits, create a bond between the carriers, and to appease Mt. Fuji so that it doesn’t erupt in the coming year. For more information go to: - this is where I picked up a lot of the background information about the festival.

We really lucked out with the weather this year - the high that day was in the mid-70's and dropping by sundown. Which was a good thing because once the taimastu are lit the temperature in the street rises dramatically. The taimastu measure close to a meter wide at the bottom and 3 meters high and run the length of the street where the festival is held. In between these large torches are smaller wood stacks (see photo) - some I understand from our guide, are put there by families that have been following this tradition for more than 500 years. It really is a street on fire and at times quite hot. I was amazed as an American, that these fires are all in the open, there are no protective barriers surrounding them. The streets were packed with families, children, strollers, dogs - it was fun to be a part of a tradition where the focus was on the shear joy of the festivities and no worries about potential lawsuits.

Culinary Palates Stretched

The street vendor part of this festival stretched our culinary palates. I have to hand it to Mitchell, Walker and Wrenn - they are truly good sports. Mitchell, Walker and I tried some sort of interesting deep fried balls that had octopus in them - see photo. Yes, those are baby octopus and yes, Walker and Mitchell can proudly say they ate the entire thing - head and all. Wrenn, bless her heart, kept trying but had more misses than hits that night - but she was game to try things. Mitchell and I tried the grilled fish on a stick - at least we think it was some kind of fish ... quite chewy so I'm not so sure about the source (photo below). The kids all had a Japanese version of crepes which was actually funny because all 4 of us are standing there trying to figure out how to tell this vendor our order and she finally pulls out an English menu so all we have to do is point. The counter to that experience was later in the evening a curmudgeonly Japanese gentleman was selling fried spaghetti and so the kids all decided to give that a try - except we didn't realize that there were 2 different kinds - so Wrenn pays and then the guy just stands there with his hands on his hips waiting. Of course Wrenn didn't know what he was waiting for, so I come over and realize the Kanji are different and figure he has 2 different kinds but beats the heck out of me what they are. So while we're standing there looking like confused foreigners a very nice Japanese couple comes up and a rapid fire exchange of Japanese ensues between them - the gentleman from the couple turns to us and says "Soy sauce," "Garlic" - aahhhh! We thank him profusely and he and his wife turn and disappear into the crowd. That's one thing that has struck me in the short time we've been here, the Japanese are very nice and willing to help even when not asked. The Fried Spaghetti with Garlic was a hit by the way.

It was a long day, we did not return to Yokosuka until midnight. Again, loads and loads of walking. But it was fun, there was an ever so brief break in the cloud cover and we caught our first glimpse of the side of Mt. Fuji. Until next time, sayonara.

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