“Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting holes burned in” was the advice I got when asking how I should prepare for Asama Hot Springs’ Torch Festival (called “Taimatsu Matsuri” in Japanese). My work colleagues and I had been invited to participate in the festival and when I first imagined what a “torch festival” would be like, I envisioned a procession of people each carrying their own little handheld torch through the town like you see in movies about medieval Europe.
Not even close.
The torches were not small, handheld fire sticks—they were humongous, flaming bundles of straw that weighed hundreds of pounds, were taller than me, and required at least ten people just to drag through the street.
Constructed from the straw, these giant torches represent the success of the autumn harvest. Every year in October, several groups ranging from the local kindergartens to the traditional inns in Asama Hot Springs make their own torch, and on the day of the festival, they light them on fire and bring them burning to the local shrine as a kind of offering. Once they arrive at the shrine, the torches are thrown into a huge fire which continues to grow as more of fiery offerings arrive. The fire creates thick plumes of smoke that rise into night sky, which also have an important role to play: the guardian spirit who has watched over the crops and the harvest here on earth “rides” the smoke to return to his home in the heavens.
Our group was to carry the torch for Umenoyu Hot Spring, one of the largest. So to get ready for the ceremony, we donned our festive happi coats, wrapped a towels around our heads (to help keep burning ashes off of our hair), and drug our torch into the road to await the official bringer of the fire.
Once lit, it was time to carry the torch to the shrine, as task requiring a total of one hour and whole lot of strength. Though I say “carry,” I think “drag” is probably a better word. Our torch was so big and heavy that it took six or seven of the young men in our group to surround the body of the torch and support its weight using their backs, while the rest of us grabbed the two attached ropes in order to pull and drag it along the path.
To my surprise, as we moved down the street, they continued to douse torch with water, at first almost extinguishing the flame. It didn’t take long to figure out why, however: the longer we heaved smoldering bundle of straw through the streets, the stronger and stronger the fire grew, burning through the core of the torch and causing chunks of fiery straw to rain down onto our heads and back. It quickly became difficult to keep the fire tame, no matter how much water we poured on top. At times the flames grew so tall that they threatened to scorch the lantern lights hanging across the arches above the streets.
Besides all the fire, another one of the fun “highlights,” if you will, of this festival is getting your face smeared with torch soot. Not only the torch carriers themselves, but even most of the spectators (whether they like it or not) end up with a layer of charcoal black “make-up” on their cheeks before the end of the night. My first thought was that it must be some kind of rite of passage that proves you were actually there, but in fact this little “ritual” does have some meaning, as it is said to help protect one’s good health for the next year.
Needless to say, we all had our faces smeared black by the time we reached the bottom of the hill below the shrine. Our last task was to muster our remaining strength, drag our torch up to the big fire, and shove it into the flames (which felt more like an inferno when we got close to it). Luckily, after making it up the hill, we just needed to give our torch a good shove before firefighters clad in spiffy, silver fire-proof suit took over, quickly deconstructing the bundles of straw and tossing them into the fire.
Mission complete—the guardian spirit was now riding home with the help of our torch’s smoke! And for us, it was time to head back and take dip in the hot spring 🙂
If you want to see this fiery festival for yourself and maybe get your face rubbed in torch soot, the Torch Festival takes place every year on the night of the second Saturday of October. The best part is that you’ll be right in the center of Asama Hot Springs, one of Japan’s best hot spring towns, with plenty of beautiful ryokan and hot spring hotels to stay at, or for a quick visit, there’s the big public bath, Hot Plaza Asama.