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  • Takeshi Kazui

A Traditional Japanese Fire Festival: Divine Fire Given by the God 神火

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Most travelers want to travel in safety, but some prefer the faint scent of danger. Now, experience the mystical ritual of being sucked into the flames.

Scene of Oto-matsuri, a traditional Japanese fire festival and sacred ritual held every February in Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.

Oto-matsuri 御燈祭 is a traditional Japanese fire-festival, which is held every February 6th in Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture. Wakayama's old name was "Kinokuni (紀伊国)", which originated from the word "Ki no Kuni" and its meaning is the woodland.

The Secret Fire Ritual

Scene of Oto-matsuri, a traditional Japanese fire festival and sacred ritual held every February in Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.

The origins of this festival can be traced back to the time when Takakuraji 高倉下 welcomed a man named Kamu-yamato-iware-biko-no-mikoto 神倭伊波礼毘古命 to Kumano with a torch. This person would take the throne of the first emperor, his name was Jimmu 神武.

Takakuraji is the son of a god associated with fire. Ame-no-hoakari-no-mikoto 天火明命 is a god of the sun and heat. If you replace the word "火明 hoakari" with another kanji, it becomes "穂赤熱 hoakari", and he is worshipped as a sun god and a god of agriculture because ears of rice turn red when they ripen. He is also the ancestor of the Kumano-no-kuni-no-miyatsuko family, who ruled the land of Kumano in ancient times.

Kumano in the World Heritage Site where the Myth of Japan Genesis Is Transmitted

The Kumano Kodo, a World Heritage Site, is a forest of eternity.

Kumano, my hometown, is located at the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula and consists of southern Wakayama Prefecture and southern Mie Prefecture. Long before I was born, it was a single country on what is now the island of Japan.

Today, I will talk about the legend and the traditional fire festival related to the founding of Japan in this region.

神武東征: The Eastern Expedition of the Emperor Jimmu

One day, when Japan was still called Wakoku , in Takachiho, Kyushu, Jimmu learned that there was a wonderfully beautiful land to the east. He crossed the sea in a ship and headed east to that land, Yamato 大和.

During the Eastern Expedition, the Jinmu army aimed for Yamato, encountering many difficulties, including resistance from the land's gozoku, which is a Japanese term used to refer to powerful and wealthy tribes, and the death of his elder brother in a fierce battle.

After overcoming many such difficulties, they landed in Kumano. However, his army was on the verge of destruction by the poison of the Great Bear, an incarnation of evil spirits/raging gods. Hence, Jimmu and the army fell into a coma.

Melancholy of the Gods

At the time of his crisis, two gods were worried about the chaos in the earthly world in the Takaama-no-hara 高天原, which is an old Japanese term used to refer to the heaven.

One of them was Amaterasu Omikami 天照大御神, who is the goddess who appears as the main god in Japanese mythology, the goddess who rules the heavens and is also known as the Kososhin 皇祖神, the ancestor of Japan's imperial family. She is depicted in Japanese mythology as having both the personality of a sun god and that of a priestess, with various divinities including a sun god, a farming god, and a weaving god.

The other was Takamimusubi-no-kami 高御産巣日神, who is the creator that generated heaven and the god that symbolizes men. And then, they tried to dispatch Takemikazuchi-no-kami 武甕槌神, who had fulfilled the tenson korin (天孫降臨): it is the descent of Ninigi-no-mikoto 邇邇藝命, the grandson of Amaterasu, Takaama-no-hara to Ashihara-no-nakatsukuni 葦原の中国, the place between Heaven and Hell. In other words, it is the earth on which we live. According to the legend, Takachiho-gawara 高千穂河原 in Kagoshima Prefecture is said to be the place where the descendants of the god descended.

The Spiritual Sword that Saved Jimmu

Returning to the earthly scene, Takakuraji brought a sword named Hutsu-no-mitama 布都御魂, which was lowered from the heavens, to the place where Jimmu and his soldiers were in distress. As soon as Jimmu woke up and received the sword, the raging bear was cut down and the soldiers regained consciousness.

Jimmu asked Takakuraji, "How have you got the sword?" Tkakuraji said, "Amaterasu and Takamimusubi appeared in my dream. The two gods summoned Takemikazuchi and commanded him, 'A grievous situation has arisen on earth. Go there and help our children.' but Takemikazuchi replied 'In exchange for my going, I will send this spiritual sword that I used to conquer the earth to the son of the god of fire and red rice ears,' and he said, 'I will cut a hole in the roof of your barn and drop the sword through it, so you can carry it to the son of the sun goddess.' Then I woke up and found the sword in my barn, just as Takemikazuchi had told me."

After that, Jimmu crossed the steep mountains of Kumano under the guidance of Yatagarasu 八咫烏, which is a three-legged raven, settled Yamato, and founded Japan.

A Traditional Japanese Fire Festival: Oto-matsuri 御燈祭

Some traditional Japanese festivals, matsuri 祭, are ancient rituals in animism and nature worship. Do you think why they have continued for over 1000 years?

The reason is that matsuri gives the experience: laughing, celebrating, and thanking the people of region together, as show in the photo album below.

Scene of Oto-matsuri, a traditional Japanese fire festival and sacred ritual held every February in Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.


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