Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

Oniyo Fire Festival

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As it’s just been bonfire night, in honour of setting light to things for spurious reasons, here are some pictures of a rather different fire festival.

The Oniyo Fire Festival of Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture in southern Japan happens every year on 7 January – and has done so apparently for the past 1900 years or so. Its purpose is to banish evil spirits from the town and grant luck, fertility and prosperity.

The temperature is close to freezing, and the men are dressed only in loincloths – so these campfires that they gather around are practical as much as ritual (generous quantities of Sake also help with proceedings.)

So much for ‘don’t play with fire’ – this is an event for all the family.

The parade of lanterns goes round and round the temple. Oisa! Oisa! Oisa goes the cry

After the parade, the men (having reunited the younger participants with their mothers), congregate around six enormous torches – the O-taimatsu – which are lit with a sacred fire. The heat is extraordinary, and the crowd recoils back. Safety rope? Of course not.

It’s hot work – and you’ve got to look out for the sparks.

Every few minutes someone will climb on each torch to cut the binding rope near the fire as the men underneath push up the torch to make sure it burns evenly and steadily.

And then they’re moving. Each torch is carried on the sticks around the temple. These things weigh in at about 1,200kg, and threaten to fall with every step.

Whilst others watch from the safety of the temple…

The torches reach the other side of the temple, and one by one, men climb on top of them, getting as close to the fire as they dare – paying their respect to the flame, proving their bravery.

Being careful not to lose their balance on the way back down…

There are more photos of this festival and other fire-related things over on Flickr, and you can read about the festival here.

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