With the summer heat invading Japan, I decided to take a trip down memory lane by browsing through some winter pictures I took around Tohoku. I instantly remembered how cold that January night was and enjoyed the brief cooling sensation. I recalled the strange sights, bursts of laughter and excitement, and the heat of the night of the Motsuji Fire Festival.
Motsuji Temple is located in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. The four plus months of the unforgiving winter in the north encourage any distraction from the cold. There is the infamous snow and ice festival of Sapporo, a kamakura (an igloo-like building) festival of Yokote, Akita Prefecture, as well as various fire festivals through Akita, Iwate, and more. January 20th is traditionally known as the coldest day of the year, so this is when the Motsuji Temple Fire Festival is held. Before the festivities started, I stood next to some large fires outside the temple’s gates to warm up. Some Japanese men offered some sake to the crowd, that I politely accepted—several times. The participants in the festival were going to be thoroughly drunk, if not tipsy, and I heard drinking keeps away the cold. Warming my belly I scurried inside to see the approaching parade.
With drums and horns made out of conch shells echoing in the night came dozens of twenty-three year old half-naked men. Twenty-three is considered an unlucky year for males, thus this festival is a time to be blessed with good luck while removing the negativity of life. The men carried large sticks that were on fire. They looked very phallic in nature, and my accompanying Professor authenticated my suspensions. The men do a dance while hitting these sticks together to represent manliness. They work their way to a small building where the priest will bless them.
It was becoming quite crowded and dangerous following the drunken men swinging flaming sticks around, so I ran around the opposite path of the lake (the temple grounds are rather large) to stake out a good spot for the next activity. After blessing the participants upon their arrival, a priest threw a bag that holds a year’s worth of good luck into the crowd. Everyone backed away and I soon found out why. The two dozen or so men came hobbling towards the bag, pushing and yelling at each other for its contents. To get better pictures for my family back home, I went right behind the perimeter of the uncontrollable mob. The bag had apparently shifted hands under the pile of men and with them the whole circle shifted my way. Staggering to keep balance I heard one of the organizers yell owari, which means it’s done/finished in Japanese. This was followed by another person screaming mada, mada, mada, meaning not yet!! After almost eight minutes of non-stop action the mob was broken up and one man stand with a big grin and the bag on his hand. The night was freezing, but with the excitement, drinks, and fun, enjoying Matsuji each January will help you forget about the cold, lest it for a brief time.