A Japanese Festival of Fire and Spirits

As the sun peeked out from the cloudy sky in Kyoto, Japan, monks wearing vests trimmed with pompoms and the black box-like headdresses known as tokin were being quizzed in front of Mibu Dera, one of the oldest temples in the city. These were the Yamabushi (mountain hermits), part of a Buddhist sect known as the Shugendō.

To enter the temple’s sacred area, each monk had to prove he was a real Yamabushi by answering a series of questions about the sect’s beliefs, dress and tools. Only those with satisfactory responses would gain access.

At the Yoshida Shrine, a young girl wore the mask of an oni, or demon, on her head. Part of the day’s rituals involved chasing the oni away. Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Watching them was a trio of children in light-colored jackets, with six curious eyes trying to figure out what was going on, joined by me, a Korean American photographer with two big eyes filled with the same curiosity.

They were preparing for the Goma Fire Ritual, as part of the Setsubun Matsuri or Setsubun Festival, held on the day before the beginning of spring, according to the Asian lunar calendar. For ages, Japanese people have used the change of seasons to exorcise past misfortunes and offer prayers for future safety and prosperity. In Kyoto, Setsubun festivals are held at many of the city’s temples and draw crowds of thousands who celebrate a variety of rituals to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits.

The children and I soon followed the monks into the grounds of the Mibu Temple where a pile of hinoki, or cypress leaves, was ready in front of the main hall for the Goma Fire Ritual.

Related Articles

Back to top button