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Japan: Hot stepping at a fire-walk festival

Walking barefoot over hot coals never seemed appealing until I arrived in this mountain town just outside Tokyo.

Each year the Yakuo-in Buddhist temple at Mount Takao, Japan, holds a fire-walking festival that culminates with the monks opening up their ceremonial pyre to the public.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate. Strangely enough, pain was the least of my worries — I figured my socks would be ruined and wondered how long my feet would stay black.

Realizing these excuses were lame, I became more concerned about cleansing my soul than cleaning my soles. The feeling intensified when I saw people taking off their shoes.

Shingon Buddhists believe the ritual rejuvenates the spirit and protects the families of those who take part. There were old people and young couples and moms and dads carrying children in line. Most of them seemed as solemn and determined as the ascetic monks who had just trod the burned-out pit moments before. This was appealing. I made up my mind.

At that point my friend and I were at the bottom of the hill from where we had watched most of the event unfold.

It started at the temple closest to the Takaosanguchi train station. After a brief ceremony there, the monks and other Yakuo-in temple devotees paraded through the center of town to a ceremonial pitch near another temple at the foot of Mount Takao.

They chanted and prayed and made proclamations — none of which we understood — for nearly an hour before igniting the leaves and sticks that formed the fire-walking pit, which was probably about 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

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The blaze sent spectacular waves of heat into the crowd and a thick gray cloud of smoke up the mountain, which pulled it up like a blanket.

The monks chanted some more and the fire settled. By the time they began walking across the pit another hour had gone by. Moments later, spectators began crowding around the smoky pit.

This was it.

“Let’s do it,” I told my friend, who had been as ambivalent about taking part as I was when we got there. Despite my surge of divine motivation, he still wasn’t convinced that walking across the ceremonial fire pit would do anything but hurt.

“When are you ever going to get a chance like this again?” I asked. It’s a popular argument to make when trying to talk yourself or others into a seemingly bizarre situation in Japan.

(“OK, I probably won’t die from eating this poison puffer fish sashimi.”)

It was enough to sway him. We were ready.

Unfortunately, by the time we worked all this out the line had gotten so long that it would have taken hours to get through and neither of us had the time. We lost our fire-walking will. It probably wasn’t strong enough to begin with.

The lesson?

If you plan to participate in the fire-walking festival, get in line early. You can always chicken out at the last minute.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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