Kyoto, Japan

A Combustible Faith

prayers to fire
Shinto priests cast prayers inscribed by believers on wooden strips to the fire.
Religious people head to the Fujimi temple clearing where the burning takes place.
Shinto luminosity
The figure of a priest stands out against the imposing flames that heat up the Shinto ritual.
more gumagi
Priest brings a pile of prayers by the fire.
Shinto entourage
Shinto priests loaded with prayers.
Faithful people write their prayers on pieces of wood (gomagi).
More prayers thrown into the fire.
Photographer in action at the entrance to the toris tunnels (Shintoist portals) of the Fushimi shrine.
Tamagushi offering
Priest holds a "tamagushi" branch and leads the procession towards the place of great fires.
fire siege
Priests carry out the ceremony amidst the rising flames.
Mikos procession
Priestesses of the Fushimi Inari temple advance under the holy toris (gates).
Police prevent a spectator from approaching the fire.
Launch of Gomagis
Gomagi are thrown into the fire while other priests prepare a new batch.
hottest light
Japanese photographer captures one of the bonfires lit at the Fushimi Inari shrine.
End of Party Intervention
Firefighters extinguish the flames after the ceremony ends.
During the Shinto celebration of Ohitaki, prayers inscribed on tablets by the Japanese faithful are gathered at the Fushimi temple. There, while being consumed by huge bonfires, her belief is renewed.

It approaches one-thirty in the afternoon and the Fushimi temple of Kyoto comes to life.

Japanese people are methodical. They don't like to be late. Even so, people continue to arrive by bicycle or from Inari or Keihan Fushimi Inari stations, on an autumnal day with blue skies and barely felt sunshine.

Priests and musicians prepare the voices and instruments for a pre-ceremony of the Ohitaki Festival that is about to begin.

At the same time, in an opposite wing of the temple, later believers rush to write their wishes and prayers on pieces of sacred wood (gumagi) with the signatures of the imperial family – and on sale for a few hundred yen (3 or 4 euros). But the moment that follows is solemn. Almost television.

worshipers write prayers, Ohitaki festival, fushimi temple, kyoto, japan

Faithful people write their prayers on pieces of wood (gomagi).

The Small Ceremonial Fire

By this time, the rice harvests have ended and it is up to the Shinto ministers to thank the gods for the prosperity they have bestowed. One of them places a dried rice plant skewer vertically on the pavement and burns it under the focused gaze of the audience.

This small incendiary operation works as a kind of symbolic entrance to the serious burning because the faithful yearn for it.

Once the fire is safely extinguished – even an auxiliary appears with a wheelbarrow full of water to guarantee it – the priests move into the sanctuary, to the shrill sound of a shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) they bless offerings of fruit, vegetables, sake, and other delicacies that they place on an altar already full of trays.

The moment proves so sacred that photography or recording is prohibited. Only a few outsiders try subterfuges to get records without attracting too much attention. There follows a religious ceremony which, from decent places, only distinguished guests attend.

Fire Festival Ceremony, Ohitaki Festival, Fushimi Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Priest holds a “tamagushi” branch and leads the procession towards the place of great fires.

Place to the Solemnity and Shinto Mysticism of the Ohitaki Festival

The ritual begins with the participation of young temple priestesses, or mikos. These carry out drag dances (kaguras) that synchronize with the percussion of a powerful gong and the contrasting tinkle of the kagura suzu (instruments that group small bells), which they are also responsible for ringing.

Apparently distant female voices and other wind instruments give the celebration a strong mysticism that the priests reinforce with their own ethereal movements of choreography.

We are in one of the main Japanese sanctuaries dedicated to Inari, god of fertility, rice, agriculture, foxes and industry, providential for both Shintoism and Buddhism.

Several of the messenger foxes (kitsunes) scattered throughout the vast temple oversee and validate the reverence for their lord, protecting him and human subjects from the malevolent energies that the Japanese believe flow from the northeast. If you arrive in the form of wind, that's not your day.

In the public eye, Fushimi's priests and priestesses form a long white and red line and move to a higher ground in the shrine, where the event is supposed to continue.

procession, Ohitaki festival, fushimi temple, kyoto, japan

Religious people head to the Fujimi temple clearing where the burning takes place.

We realized that we are at the base of the famous chopping of Inari, the main shrine of the temple, consisting of hundreds of orange toris (portals) with black bases, offered by Japanese companies, manufacturers and merchants who thus seek to claim their own prosperity from the god.

The audience that followed the events until then is now installed under a canvas tent, behind the religious and musical performers or around the rectangular atrium.

Fire Ceremony, Ohitaki Festival, Fushimi Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Shinto priests loaded with prayers.

All around, a humid forest stands out from which echo the honking and hooting of crows and other birds, excited to feast on insects driven away by all that commotion.

The Ohitaki Fire That Validates Crops and Fertility

The ritual continues next to three verdant campfire bases, covered with cedar branches and on which they have been placed. gumagi, tea leaves, salt and sacred sake.

prayers, Ohitaki festival, fushimi temple, kyoto, japan

Priest brings a pile of prayers by the fire.

A priest blesses them and, shortly thereafter, others set them on fire. Three columns of gray smoke rise to the sky. Shortly thereafter, they dissipate.

The first flames emerge from the suffocation of the firewood and gain dimension. A lined choir of priests begins to chant a mantra that will accompany much of the ceremony.

The Fascinating Combustion of Gomagi Prayers

With the flames growing louder, the religious inaugurate the tedious burning of gumagi which they cast solemnly over the fire as a kind of pious-prayers condemned to coal.

Burning prayers, Ohitaki Festival, fushimi temple, kyoto, japan

Shinto priests cast prayers inscribed by believers on wooden strips to the fire.

After 45 minutes of combustion, the miko take over the ceremony once again with a new graceful dance called miko-seai. Afterwards, they return to the interpretation of the mantra that preceded it.

Every year, there are several hundred thousand prayers entered by the faithful and the burning can last more than 4 hours, until sunset. When it ends, the religious and most of the crowd disband.

The large courtyard and the remaining flames are left to onlookers and firefighters.

Women flock to the tables where the dishes with sacred salt and green tea leaves are still laid out. Between short and occasional dialogues, there they dispute holy memories of the ceremony, which they keep in small plastic bags.

I photograph at the Fire Festival, Ohitaki Festival, Fushimi Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Japanese photographer captures one of the bonfires lit at the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Meanwhile, a scattering battalion of fire soldiers share what's left of the fires with the faithful and throw stray branches onto the pebbled ground for the sheer pleasure of watching them vanish into the flames.

From time to time, one or the other remembers their functions and prevents the people from getting too close to the fire to collect the ashes they believe will bring good luck to the people. lares.

The Extinguishing of Bonfires and the Fushimi Temple Ohitaki Festival

Finally, the authorities decide it's time to evacuate the toughest believers. With the usual Japanese verbal salamales they tell them that they have to leave the room. But an elderly man armed with a rain hat decides to play with the policeman who approaches him and stays.

Police prevent spectator, Ohitaki Festival, fushimi temple, kyoto, japan

Police prevent a spectator from approaching the fire.

The agent is confused. You are dealing with an elder and in the Japan, respect for elders is paramount. He looks back at his colleagues, as if asking for help, but none comes to him. Finally, he holds the arm of the resister who is amused by the situation for a moment but ends up giving in.

The Ohitaki Festival is one of the oldest Shinto rituals and, as we have seen in this and other events, it has added a rejuvenating power of connection to Nature.

Aware that good harvests depend on the good will of the gods, people show their thanks with offerings of freshly harvested rice and heartfelt prayers.

firefighters put out flames, Ohitaki Festival, fushimi temple, kyoto, japan

Firefighters extinguish the flames after the ceremony ends.

And since both gods and humans share Nature, their relationship is based on the reciprocity that gods need attention as humans need help.

The ceremony thus helps people to recognize happiness in its humility and dependence.

And to keep the flame of faith burning.

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