A Rebirth By Fire: Otou Matsuri Festival

Text & photography by Leonardo Pellegatta

SOHN – Lights
Tremors (2014)

Since long, long ago, the area of Kumano, in the southern end of the Kii mountains of Japan, has been known as the land of the gods. Here, according to the Kojiki (the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, since the 8th century), landed from the sea the first emperor; and here for the past 1,400 years the town of Shingu has been host to one of the most ancestral event of this territory: the Otou Matsuri.

This unique fire festival is held every February 6th, and begins just after the sunrise with Shiogori, a purification ceremony at the seashore of the city, where a Shinto priest is praying to the Gods for protection for the participants and connecting the sea spirits to the sacred mountain where the festival is about to take place. Right after the prayer, the participants of the Otou Matsuri, in order to purify themselves, take a bath in the freezing salty water of the ocean.

Otou Matsuri Festival japan

As the day goes by, every noboriko (participants in the festival) must eat only white food: such as steamed rice, tofu and white fish and drink spring water or sake, white having the symbolic meaning of pureness in Japan.

Then as the dusk falls, everybody gets clad in white and prepares himself to receive the sacred Fire and to worship Gotobiki-iwa, a holy rock at the top of a mountain shrine named Kamikura Jinja. The legend says this is the site where the Kumano gods descended from the heavens, and is possible that the massive stone of Gotobiki-iwa was venerated by the aboriginal people as a powerful deity even a long time before Shinto practices developed in this region.

Otou Matsuri Festival japan

Every participant of the Otou Matsuri has his prayers written on the torch; and when everyone has climbed up an extremely steep stoned pathway to ascend towards the top of the mountain, a shaman priest will light up an original sacred fire, using flint stones at the feet of the holy rock Gotobiki. This first sacred fire is then carried downhill to give life to a bigger flame and to light the fire of nearly 2,000 torches!

Otou Matsuri Festival japan

In order to participate in the festival one must be male and willing to be subjected to intense heat, violence, and other life-threatening challenges, and most importantly allow oneself to let go of modern logic and convention and put tremendous trust in his fellow man, yet at the same time be ready to battle him for survival.

Read more in N˚5: Arrival.