Chinkasai Fire Festival

Miyajima’s chinkasai is an impressive fire appeasing 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.

During the calm before the storm, 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 and the main entrance to the shrine.

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. After a purification rite in the main shrine, pine taimatsu torches are lit and a bonfire is lit. As soon as the flames flare up local youth charge in to try and grab some of the sacred flames with which to light their own group’s giant torch before anyone elses. 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 festival performance.

Groups of men parade past each other large blazing torches half a meter in diameter and several meters long  chanting, “taimatsu yoi yoi, taimatsu yoi yoi” out to the Otorii shrine gate and along the coastal path, at times spinning them, at times standing them erect. Kids carry smaller torches. 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.

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.

The Chinkasai Fire Festival is held annually on New Year’s Eve at around 18:00. Click here for more details.

Paul Walsh

Paul arrived in Hiroshima "for a few months" back in 1996. He is the co-founder of and loves running in the mountains.

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