Miyajima’s chinkasai is an impressive fire prevention festival held on New Year’s Eve.
From midnight on December 31st, through the first days of the New Year, Miyajima is packed with thousands upon thousands of people making visits to Itsukushima Shrine. The streets are lined with stalls hawking food, drink and souvenirs, and the atmosphere is very festive and fun.
Before the crowds arrive, however, just after dark on New Year’s Eve, the chinkasai fire festival takes place in the relatively a small space near Itsukushima Shrine between the stone torii gate, at the end of the Omotesando shopping street, and the main entrance to the shrine. It is quite the spectacle and well worth braving the cold for.
With most people living in the wooden houses, closely clustered together along narrow streets for centuries, fear of calamitous fires is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche. The chinkasai dates back to at least as far back as the Edo era when it was conducted by yamabushi mountain priests, but was taken over by the priests of Itsukushima Shrine in the Meiji Period.
During the afternoon before the sun goes down groups of (usually) men walk through the shopping street parading huge pine torches which will feature in the main event after dark.
While a purification rite goes on Itsukushima Shrine, people start to gather at the small open space mentioned above that serves as the main site of festival. Shrine priests arrive carrying flaming handheld pine torches with which are small bonfire is lit. As soon as the bonfire flares up, local youths race to be the first team to light their own giant taimastu pine torches by charging in to grab some of the sacred flames. Things get quite “heated” while local fire fighters try to fend off the young men who come at them from all angles, and it is kind of hard to tell how much of the pushing and shoving is for real and how much is performative. It is, in any respect, quite exciting.
Torches now alight, the various groups proceed to parade up and down while each other blazing torches up to half a meter in diameter and several meters long; chanting, “taimatsu yoi yoi, taimatsu yoi yoi“, at times spinning them, at times standing them erect. Kids carry smaller torches and onlookers try to light their own torches from the blazing ends of the big taimatsu as they move.
It is quite a sight and a great photo opportunity. Keep your wits about you, however, or you might find you get bopped on the back of the head with a giant, gyrating, flaming tree trunk!
After some time, the teams finally make their way down to the sandy beach in front of the great torii gate where they stand the torches up on their ends, with the flames pointing to the sky.
In the past people would take the torches home and use the fire to cook particularly auspicious new year’s dishes. Today, however, the torches are extinguished and displayed at home as fire prevention charms. In pre-pandemic years, local businesses would sell small versions of visitors to take home.
The Chinkasai Fire Festival is held annually on New Year’s Eve at around 18:00. Click here for more details.
Read Iwakuni Foodie’s account of her time at the Chinkasai Festival here.