After spending some quality time getting to know the red-face snow monkeys of Jigokudani Park, I headed back to the Kanbayashi entrance area as advised by Yumoto-san, the owner of Shimaya Ryokan where I was staying.
He specifically instructed me, that I must stay put up to around 2:30 pm, since I will be witnessing a once a year festival where a group of mountaineering ascetics wearing mask will cut a rope with a Japanese sword and someone will be walking on fire. Hearing the words “sword” and “fire-walker” were enough to convince me of spending the rest of the day at Kanbayashi.
I arrived way too early but somehow turns out to be a good thing. I got to spend time with the locals as they do the initial preparation. The ambiance is something else, as if we are all anticipating a spectacular thing to happen. It feels like I was part of the community and somehow loosen up in spite some overwhelming desires on my end to communicate with them. The towering trees and snow surrounding the Kanbayahsi Shirne has heighten my appreciation further to the hypnotizing beauty of torii, temples and shrines.
It’s time. Everyone was rushing to the entrance. From a distant, you can hear the beating of the drums signaling the arrival of the masked-men and their entourage, who came from Shiba Onsen. Judging from the way they walked, I can only assume that the mask covers even their eyes. It was quite difficult for them to see and they need an assistant to lead the way, so the idea of cutting the rope with a sword seems to be one daunting ordeal.
The first masked-man moves forward without hesitation. He aimed his sword to the rope as if assessing its distance. With one clean swipe, he cut the roped into half and everyone cheered, clapped and congratulated him for a job well done.After the rope cutting ceremony, we made our way inside the shrine grounds for the rest of the ritual. The rest of the men walking together with the masked ones entered the shrine for a prayer ceremony. As they removed their winter jackets, I was surprised to see that all of them were wearing formal suits underneath. I was told that most of them are local business owners who participate in the ritual as a way of thanking the gods for blessings and protection.
Two ascetics wearing white clothing and rope-woven slipper emerged from the shrine. They walked towards the snow covered stones and summoned a prayer ritual in front of it. It was fascinating to see these white-clothed ascetics surrounded by snow, standing in front of Japanese character engraved stones.
After the prayers, the three ascetics joined the rest of us outside as we encircled a boiling bucket of water. The ascetics dipped a bamboo branch into the boiling water and sprinkled the hot water to the people around them. It is believed that the water will help drive away evil spirit- this practice is called Yukaji.
After Yukaji, everyone was rushing to get the best spot around the burning woods for the main event- fire-walking. The same three ascetics approached the burning coal but before they step into it, they performed another set of prayers. I was captivated with their hand movements while chanting a prayer, there something mystical the way they utter each words accompanied by a somehow well-rehearsed series of hand moves. If you are an anime/manga fan and familiar with “Yuyu Hakusho /Ghost Fighter”, you know those hand movements that the characters performed before they summon their powers- well, it was exactly like that.
One by one, they step into the hot coal, crossing from one end to another, for at least three times, as if it is the easiest thing to do. This ritual is about 160 years old and is called “Sendayaki” (burning of thousand packs of woods). After the three ascetics completed the fire-walking ceremony, some curios people like me stayed behind and partially tested the coal ourselves. Was it really that hot? Do you need some divine power to walk into it without burning your sole? The answer is- hmmm…after standing the whole day on snow, my feet is so cold and I am convince that I could walk easily too.
For the completion of the whole ceremony, some business owners and the three astetics, climb the make–shift stage in front of the shrine and started throwing peanuts, oranges, rice cakes to the crowd. The rule is pretty simple- try your best to catch some, eat or share them afterwards. It is believed that these foods are blessed and can ensure good health to anyone who ate them. So the crowd goes all out catching mode, with someone even opting to use an upside down umbrella thinking it will do the job better. Getting greedy?
The day is over. I managed to catch a pocketful of peanuts and happily munched them as I waited for the bus.