Me playing with fire. Picture courtesy of Ben Colbridge.
This is the last picture that I will post, for now. I can not stress how much I love this particular festival. For those interested in participating, it takes place every year in mid March (at Aso Shrine, located in Japan, Kumamoto-ken, Aso-gun, Ichinomiya-machi). Though not as dangerous as some of the more famous matsuris, such as the one where a hundred people ride a huge log down a hill (people get crushed under the log) or the festivals in which massive floats are carried or pulled through busy streets lined with spectators (even more people get crushed to death by crashes and trampling) or drunken horse festivals where you can get kicked in the face (death by severe head wounds or other internal injuries), the fire swinging festival feels very dangerous in comparison.
Everyone is a pyro at heart, except for those with unfortunate phobias dealing with fire. We all love to play with fire. Fireworks, flammable liquids, matches, barbecues, campfires, blowtorches, the kitchen stove, the bunsen burner in Chem. We have all melted action figures and Barbie dolls, disposed of incriminating report cards, exterminated pesky insects, shot bottle rockets at dear friends, watched meat sizzle on the grill, and just stared into the flames in a hypnotized state. These are no less fun experiences than the fire festival, but a religious ceremony that invites anyone to take part in such a wild and seemingly dangerous activity makes the experience more profound. Hell, if there was fire swinging after Mass, I would probably go to church occasionally with my Catholic friends.
The hissing swoosh, the flaming orbit of a fiery body in motion. Yes, that sillhouetted object in the background, just under the flame, is someone’s leg.
The booming thunder of Taiko drums. Unorganized, erratic swinging of massive fireballs, participation available to all who dare enter the fiery grounds of hell. Orange flames gnawing free of their tethers of smouldering rope, smashing into people, to whom I am telling stories of this very same scenario from last year to, at this very moment. Smoke in the eyes, and stepping in piles of combusting combustibles. Braving all of this to take pictures. Me and my friends and many more strangers in a strange land. More to follow…
In Aso, the whole month of March is dedicated to celebrating fire in various ways. It is a traditional practice to light one’s field, full of the dried out stalks and chaff left over from last year’s harvest, on fire. This not only provides entertainment, but it also looks cool and serves to fertilize the earth.
Well, if you have never been to Aso, then you have never seen the tall, super-fast growing ocean of grass that ripples in the summer breeze. This grass, aside from bamboo, is the fastest growing grass that I know of. Once late Spring rolls around, the farmers will let their cows loose in the stuff, and they don’t have to worry about feeding them after that point. In the Fall, the tractors will come out and harvest great wheels of dried grass, much like hay is harvested in other rural areas for fodder. Despite all of this consumption, much grass is left untouched.
A typical hill in Ubuyama-mura, covered in lots of dry grass.
So now comes the fire part. In order to clear way for the new grass, massive areas of grassland are set ablaze every year. From a distance, you can see a great swath of bright orange flames consuming the dried grass, climbing up the mountain with surprising speed. Much ash has been falling from the smoky skies as of late.
A couple of weekends ago in Aso town, there was a famous fire festival where they burned huge kanji into the mountain at night time. I wasn’t there because I went to Kuju instead, and I am glad. People who went told me that the cold sapped all of the fun out of the experience. However, the best festival is coming up: the fire swinging festival is tomorrow. Last year, I saw what appeared to be a man being immolated by flames unintentionally, as a fireball that had burned through the straw rope tether shot towards him as if by the hands of Ryu. The burning mass of straw exploded on his mid-section and swirled around him, but he was unhurt. So of course this year I will once again brave this crazy spectacle and try and take some good pictures of people swinging fire around without any regard for anyone else’s safety. If you are ever in Kumamoto during mid-March, this festival is not to be missed at any cost!
Every once in a while, I take a picture that I really like. This one was taken at a lake in Yufuin (in Oita-ken), and I had to venture out into the water to get it.
I really like the shrines that are built in or around water in its various forms. They seem more powerful, or at least more interesting. This one made me wonder: did they drain the lake in order to set the concrete columns in place and then fill it back up, or did they build it and then create the lake, or did they just sink in the columns pre-fabricated? Of course, it would be cool if it just magically appeared from the void or if it was built by supernatural beings, but if this were the case, I would hope that they would use more exotic building materials, like an all knowing oracular slab of midnight blue sapphire that could only be awakened by the one who was foretold of by the prophecy, or a rock that would be indistinguishable from ordinary concrete, that if touched would instantly cause its victim to be disintegrated, transomgrafied, or transported to a different dimension.