Jan 18, 2018
In our city, Kurume, Fukuoka-ken, but out in the rural area, there's a festival we meant to go to last year. One of my students lives in that neighborhood and invited me to check it out. It sounded really interesting and we decided to go and invite a couple friends along. Unfortunately it was rainy so at the last minute we decided not to go. Our friends went anyway and said it was worth it for the unique experience.
On the night of January 7th every winter, men (and even lots of small boys) volunteer to wear traditional loincloths to run around with torches.
We finally went to Tamataregu shrine in the Daizenji Neighborhood this year for the Oniyo Fire Festival. I heard it's one of the three most important fire festivals in Japan. I'm not super clear on the meaning of it all, but it has something to do with good luck for the harvest in the next season.
It's free to enter, but you will have to battle the crowds and cold. I agree that it's worth it as long as the rain isn't heavy.
The shrine is right after a red pedestrian bridge, a five minute walk north of Daizenji Station from the west exit. Tamataregu is a beautiful old shrine with carved wooden structures, most famous for the Oniyo festival. Like most festivals in Japan, there were tons of food stalls and we could smell the yummy festival smells as we arrived. We could also smell a sort of campfire smell because of all the torches.
Luckily my student was there with her family and saw us in the crowds. She grabbed me so we could chat and also so she could be our unofficial guide. They go almost every year (if it isn't rainy like last year) so they know the shrine well, although her son & husband don't participate. She is the one who showed us the bonfires where the participating men go to take a break before lighting the huge torches. She also explained some of what was going on to us and we watched with her family as they knew where the giant torches would be moved to.
In addition to the familiar campfire smell, you will probably get some ash on you if you get close enough. Stepping on the burning embers and pieces of wood is supposed to bring good luck. Men shouted, 'o-isa!' while running around the shrine, then after a break to warm up near seven bonfires in back, they went to the center where the seven giant torches were lit.
They then carefully lift the giant torches with long 'pokers' (as my student explained, like a giant wiener cookout) and move them through the crowds to the back of the shrine.
We didn't stick around for all seven to be moved as the rain picked up around then. It was interesting to see and looked dangerous as well! I wouldn't want to try it.<
I recommend going to Oniyo but don't think it's something we'll go to every year - seeing it once is enough for us.