Full Frame: Walking through fire, literally

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Purification rites are at the heart of Shintoism. Perhaps the best known is the ceremony performed prior to the creation of a new building — a ritual many in the auto industry have witnessed before the construction of a new Japanese car-manufacturing plant. It’s a symbolic way of washing away evils to pave the way for a prosperous and healthy future.

But these rites not always washing, though water almost always plays a role. One of the most unusual purification rituals takes place across Japan in the winter and early spring: the “Hiwatari Matsuri,” or fire-walking festival, where mountain priests walk across hot embers in order to purify themselves.

At Mount Takao, about an hour from Tokyo, ascetic priests douse themselves with boiling water before walking ever so gingerly across hot embers, which are the remnants of a huge bonfire. This bonfire is set off by a sacred arrow, shot from a bow that has been blessed during rites that precede the main event. Thousands of wooden tablets are also burned in a bonfire. Worshippers seeking purification have written their names on the tablets, called “nadegi."

The ritual is becoming increasingly popular (it has been truncated to make it more palatable for the thousands who make the journey to Mount Takao to watch, and nowadays even participate), but the deep spirituality of the event is still clearly evident. The monks are impeccably dressed in traditional garments, decorated with sashes and pendents. Some shake sacred metal rattles, similar to the small hand-held “mani” used by Tibetan monks, while others blow on conch shells, the strong, clear notes resounding like the warning blasts of an approaching ship. The monotone drone of the priests chanting sacred sutras can be heard throughout the proceedings. The billowing plumes of smoke in the background add to the mystique.

Covering such rituals has been a part of my life in Japan for many years and each presents a different kind of challenge. At the fire-walking ritual, it is the smoke billowing up from the embers that taxes, although, ultimately, this can result — like the ritual itself — in good rather than bad. 

About the photographer:

Robert Gilhooly is a freelance photojournalist based in Japan. His work has appeared in publications around the globe, including Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, L.A. Times, International Herald Tribune, The Times and the Guardian. He was formerly a staff reporter at the Japan Times. He has also contributed to numerous TV documentaries and books. 

See the work of more photographers:

Tim Hussin: Piles of sponges, Bahamas

Khaled Hassan: Surviving off stones, Bangladesh

Edwin Koo: When peace deals break down, Pakistan

Beth Dow: In a secret garden, Europe

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