Ben said we would be going to the Fire Festival in Aso. Several weekends ago, we saw, from a distance, two Japanese Kanji characters burned into the side of two mountains. I thought that would be involved somehow with this. I also figured some fireworks would be involved, and Ben informed us that on Saturday night, 2,000 fireworks would be set off in his town. And someone said something about some rings of fire and people in them. Other than those concepts, I went into this Fire Festival with not a lot of expectation, simply assuming that, like other Japanese cultural events, I would stand with my friends, listening to someone or a group of people lead some ceremony with some significance that I could neither understand nor grasp.
Like many of my assumptions made prior to attending several Japanese events so far that made those assumptions look ridiculous, the Fire Festival turned out to be one of the most incredible cultural experiences I have had here, although it will have to share that status with waterfall-jumping and meteor-gazing. Most events and ceremonies I have attended here have been, for the most part, spectator events, with parade-type atmospheres, and big crowds watching performances on stage. The Fire Festival, despite being the most dangerous celebration yet, was also the most participatory.
Aso is the town around Volcano Aso, the active volcano about an hour North of Kumamoto City. The whole point is to gather at the Aso Shrine and welcome the fire goddesses so as to bring good health and good fortune for the coming year. My friends and I parked and approached the streets around the shrine to see hundreds, if not several thousand, people gathered and watching the gravel walkways and areas bordering the shrine. Suddenly, the faces of the crowd, the houses nearby and the stones of the walls lining the shrine glistened with the reflection of dozens of levitating fireballs.
The crowd seemed to be lining the streets and watching a procession of people swinging ropes connected to flaming shapes roughly the size of basketballs. We skipped along the outside of the gathering, found a gap, and stepped through for a better look. The crowd was not watching a procession or a parade of any kind. The people weren’t moving, they were standing in one spot, swinging ropes at the end of which featuring fire devouring bundles of hay strapped together. Members of the fire department and event organizers kept bringing armloads of hay bundles, all ready tied together, for people to grab a hold of, make sure that both ends of the bundle caught fire, and then take the rope and swing in circles until the orange, red, and yellow got to the rope and sent the charred remnants of hay flying. How do I know this? EVERYONE GOT TO SWING FIRE!!!!!!!
This evening was one of those times that are so surreal, you almost feel bad you won’t be able to thoroughly communicate the atmosphere with people that weren’t there. For several city blocks, the night’s darkness was illuniated by endless glowing dots following an orbit around their swinger, which also made for a “Wayne’s World” effect of blurry vision; the people down the street looked like they were in a groggy dream or flashback. You found yourself fascinated but choking, mesmerized yet terrified. I wanted to pick up a bundle and join in, but hey, there’s a Japanese grandmother about five feet from me that was swinging a four-foot long rope that could singe my eyebrows, and if I avoid here, her two grandkids are just beyond that stumbling around with BURNING BUNCHES ON A STRING!!! Then, logically, not only do you have to watch airborne globes coming at your face and upper body, you have to watch where you step, because, like my friend Treve, your Adidas shoes could become permanently scarred by the smoldering remains on the ground.