Friday, September 3, 2010

Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival

What a difference a year can make.

Last year, we were fresh off the plane only a month living in Japan when we came to the Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival. Japan was intriguing, culturally different, mysterious. This year, Japan is home. Last year I took photos of the festival food, we tried so many different kinds of food - most of which we had no idea what we were eating. This year we passed by the food vendors with barely a glance - "oh, okonomiyaki (pancake like dish with cabbage), yakisoba (stir fry soba noodles with veggies and usually meat)", "oh yawn, look there's takoyaki" (Japanese dumpling with whole baby octopus). Last year we had eyes wide open, it was all new, it was all different and yes as far as the food went some of it was quite novel and we looked to each other to see who would dare eat the poor baby octopus in the batter ...

The difference a year can make is also apparent in your mentality. Last year we stuck together like glue. This year ... "you all have your cell phones? great, see you later, go have fun!" With fires lit, hoards of people, there was never a thought about our kids safety - this will be a hard reality for us when we do return to the U.S.

This year, with advanced planning, Jeff took leave so that he was able to join us. It was warmer than last year (hottest summer on record since they started in 1898) but the skys were clear and we were able to see Mt. Fuji.

The Fire Festival starts off for us at Fuji Sengen Jinja. It is one of the largest forest shrines in Japan and the mossy stone lanterns that line the way into the shrine were enjoying a lovely late afternoon sunbath - my family moved on as I took multiple photos enamored with the scenery. The large cedar trees offered a respite from the warm summer day and the lovely aroma of the cedars mixed in with incense wafting through the air was inhaling a deep sense calm - wish I could bottle the stuff. It was in stark contrast to all the activity once you arrived in the shrine area where there was a buzz about the place as men dressed in Hanten (a short coat with the name of their group on the back) with bells jingling as they walked, the aroma of incense lingering in the air, anticipation as everyone waited for the spirit of the princess to emerge in a shroud and enter into one of the Omikoshi (portable shrines). There's a deep respect as the shinto priests pass by, with the soulful sound of the Shakuhachi Flute (Japanese bamboo flute), the low pitched wailing that accompanies the shroud vs. the festival atmosphere as we encountered a high energy elderly gentleman with a twinkle in his eye as he stopped to offer Jeff and myself a sip of Sake from a communal cup. Jeff seemed hesitant but I jumped right in and laughed saying "what's the difference - you take communion from a communal cup" - his response was "but the priest wipes the cup with a cloth." Right. That makes all the difference.

We followed the shrines down the street with the masses, the bearer's chanting the heavy portable shrines as they go along, the mood definitely shifts after leaving the grounds of the shrine. It's like going to church for Christmas vs. opening presents on Christmas Day when all hell breaks loose. There's laughter, shouting, beer being consumed in public, jostling, kids running – it's lively, it's chaos!

As we walked down the main street the food vendors were starting to set up shop and we quickly got into our festival food mode. Release those barriers people, let's try something new! I had a delicious type of seafood on a stick (I was not going to examine it too closely) grilled and dipped in soy sauce - yum! We found our crepe lady from last year, at the very end of the street, and each of us was rewarded with a delicious crepe in a cone with the filling of our choice (yes I went for a run the next day, burn baby burn). Wrenn wanted to find the fried spaghetti - which we found on our way back up the street, at least this year we knew the choices and only had to guess which was which.

As dusk approached, the taimatsu (torches) were being lit and we had a clear view of Fuji. This year we were able to see the fires that are lit at each of the stations up the side of the mountain (you can barely make it out on our night photo). The crowds were becoming thicker, the heat from the fires much more intense. I could hear the taiko drums and of course sought them out. It is something to see and hear - the air vibrates with the beating of the drums, there is a build up as the pace quickens and the drumming becomes more energetic ... I love it and cannot get enough. In my next life I want to be a taiko drummer ...

The advantage to living in another country vs. visiting it, is that we live with the culture (I can't say in the culture since we do still live on a U.S. military base), we get to revisit favorite events from the previous year and see and notice things we either weren't aware of the year before or hadn't noticed. I spent a lot more time wandering around the shrine grounds this year, the lovely little pond garden I didn't see last year and seeing and hearing the Shishi Odoshi (bamboo deer chaser) with the steady hollow 'tonk,' seeing the awesome dragon where out of respect you are supposed to dip a cup into the water and rinse your mouth and hands from impurities before entering the shrine grounds. Like the Paper Lantern Festival in Kamakura, I do not know if we'll have a chance to come back to the Fuji Fire Festival (the Navy holds that crystal ball), but I will treasure this year's event, seeing Mt. Fuji with the stations lit was a site to behold, the signal that the climbing season has ended and the wait for the next one begins. Till next time, sayonara.


  1. Great post! I, too, want to be a taiko drummer. I regret not pursuing that while in Japan. So, take some lessons at the community this lifetime!

  2. Amazing the difference in a year. Your family is really thriving in Japan.


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