Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dosoujin Fire Festival - part two!

When we last left our little gaijin.... she was joining the fifteen or so daring? lazy? guests that shunned the long walk into town through the blizzard and decided to take the tank into town crowded into the back of a hollowed out van (all unnecessary parts, including seatbelts and their respective seats removed) and we squatted down for the ride.
About five uncomfortable minutes later, we arrived to a stream of people walking downhill through a festively decorated street.

To the right! sculptures of snow lit up from underneath. To the left! twinkling christmas lights! To the front! a scarily large number of fire fighters and firetrucks lining up, 'just in case'.
You know that's the sign of a good party.

As we cleared the brigade and trudged up the back side of a natural ampitheater made of snow, we saw a spectacle I wouldn't forget for a while: A wooden temple was sitting there, made of sturdy logs, decorated on top with pine branches jutting out artistically and, perhaps more important, flammably. Sitting on the top of the temple were a group of middle aged men, looking somewhere between bored and amused. On the bottom were a group of young men in their skivvies. Across the ampitheater was a giant bonfire. Every now and then some people from the village would grab a flaming stick from fire, rush over to the wooden temple, and attempt to light it on fire.
What? apparently this was a perfectly safe thing to do, as it was clearly protected by the young men, swatting at the flames exhuberantly with paper fans. Although 'fanning' and 'putting paper near' are phrases that don't immediately come to mind as synonymous with 'putting out a fire', those kids managed to ward off wave after wave of attackers.
Meanwhile, we had wormed our way closer to the front of the ampitheater to
a) get a better angle for photos and
b) get closer to the giant vat of free sake.

This sake vat was surrounded by other foreigners, excitedly speaking every language under the sun and getting extremely wasted.
Actually, it wasn't just the sake vat. The entire festival audience was about 60% made up of foreigners.
Takeshi looked at me suspiciously. "How did you hear of this festival, anyway? I've never heard of it!"
I pursed my lips and made a wry smile. "From my underground network of foreign friends!"
Some of the old japanese guys in the audience were trying out their english on the girls. I heard them gabbing away. "I asked one for a kiss, and she kissed my cheek! Festivals with mostly foreigners ain't bad, eh? eeeeh?" They jabbed each other merrily.
One started to make his way over to me, when Takeshi gave him a scary look of death, and he thought again. (I thought my look of death was scary, but TK managed to make the festival flames appear in his eyes. hee hee.)

After we were given more free sake shots than we really technically needed, the crush of the crowd brought us nearly an arm's reach away from the front. I was able to see the onslaught of villagers getting more intense every minute.
I was getting a little scared.
"If that thing goes up in flames, and we're here...." I was jostled by a merry maker and started to sweat.
The battle was heating up, and the swats were getting less effective. a flame had caught onto one of the rope hand holds. Was this okay? Was this going to end in a firey death??

(...in case you're not aware I'm trying to go for dramatic impact here, dear readers, please know that in all of its long history, no one had been burned to a crisp at this festival. At least not recently.)

While it made all of us first timers in the audience antsy, the old guys at the top were looking pretty bored, and not at all worried they were about to be turned into black smoldering charcoal briquettes, and the youths were getting black soot faces and hollering, but not running away in terror, which helped me realize this part was just an act, and those solid sturdy frozen logs were not about to catch fire just from a flame lick or two.

Suddenly, a taiko drum started, cueing a swarm of firefighter brigades to form a wall of arms and slowly march back, pushing everyone at about an inch a second away from the temple.
The old guys at the top took a last sip of sake and slowly started to evacuate from the top via a hidden ladder on the back, and though I couldn't see the kids, I'm sure they were busy making their getaway.
Now the real show was about to start. When the brigade decided we were all at a safe distance, the bonfire itself was moved, I don't know if the method was wheels or people carrying it via long poles or some sort of dark magic, slowly, slowly, towards the doomed wooden temple.

At an peal from the taiko drums, the bonfire made contact with the wood, which stubbornly refused to take for a few minutes, until the flames reached the decorative kindling at the top. Suddenly we were bathed in a flood of golden light as the thin graceful branches at the top sparkled and danced, ablaze.
It was snowing, so our thick winter clothes protected us not only from cold but from sudden flashes of heat that radiated from the temple as a new log would surrender and catch on fire.

The last treat was, on top of the entire thing and hanging suspended between two branches was a tiny gold shrine, which shone more briliantly than the entire flaming temple. I don't know what that shrine symbolized, but it was beautiful and probably symbolic moment, that refused to be caught properly on camera.

After the highlight was over, it became clear that the temple would probably take a few more hours to burn away entirely, most of the audience (yours truly included), trudged away and left the cleanup to the competent hands of the fire brigade.

It was a spectacular event, one of the best kept secrets in Japan. Except of course, from the foreigners.