On New Year’s eve on the island of Miyajima, Southern Japan, people gather to celebrate the ‘Chinkasai Fire Festival’ – a spectacle involving enormous flaming torches carried through the streets by local inhabitants of the island.
The festival has its roots in the past, when the danger of fire was commonplace among the wooden houses on the island. Whilst modern construction techniques have made such fires a rarity, the festival is still conducted on the last day of the year to ward off fire in the year ahead.
As the sun falls below the horizon and darkness envelopes the island, spectators gather at the shore near the great torii gate. A fire torch is carried from a nearby shrine and used to light smaller torches that have been made by the community during the month of December.
Once each team’s giant torch is ignited, the excitement began as they each split off in multiple directions, running and chanting ‘YOI YOI’ whilst carrying their enormous flaming torches.
The largest of pine torches are carried by up to 20 – 30 men, using wooden beams to support the heavy loads. It was great to see such variety within the teams, from super small children to pensioners who have probably done it all their life.
After several trips along the street, the festival got slightly more dangerous with each team taking turns to see how quickly they could spin their torch. By positioning their team members in the middle of the torch they got some serious momentum with some almost spinning out of control and sending sparks flying everywhere. (Firemen were on duty just in case…)
After the spinning competition, a few of the teams went down to the shore in front of the great torii, which was now fully exposed due to the low tide.
Finally, the torches were extinguished and then paraded back to their team leader’s property- in this instance a local shop selling various edible Japanese treats.
All in all, a truly excellent way to bring in the New Year, and providing a welcome break to the Western tradition of watching fireworks against some cheesy pop music!
(Note: I got extremely lucky in getting the prime spectator position – so get there early to avoid disappointment as the crowd is big and many had obstructed views!)