Pirate night on Innoshima: The Suigun Fire Festival

Innoshima Island on the Shimanami Kaido (the 2nd island on the route if starting from Onomichi) is very proud of its suigun heritage. The suigun are often referred to as “pirates”, and we are sure they were viewed as such in their early days. Although suigun forces were called upon to provide naval support in battle on behalf of allied clan leaders on the main island of Honshu, they have recently begun to be portrayed more as helpful pilots who would guide craft passing through the often treacherous island straits in this area; for a fee, of course (they don’t talk much about what would happen should a ship refuse to pay the toll).

The Shimanami area was controlled by the Murakami clan which had three branches. Innoshima was home to… the Innoshima Murakami, and the island devotes no less than three summer festivals; the “Island Festival”, the “Sea Festival” and, largest of the three, the “Fire Festival.” The Fire Festival, held on a long sandy swimming beach under the watchful eye of a concrete brontosaurus (I kid you not) comes at the end of summer and is an opportunity for locals and visitors to don their yukata summer kimono one last time. They hit the stalls, enjoy watching taiko drumming, dances, samurai parades, boat races, the charging of flaming pine trees and one of the region’s last fireworks displays of the summer. It really is quite a spectacular event.

Although autumn is on its way, it’s still pretty hot at the end of August, so it is quite a relief that the Fire Festival starts late in the afternoon. Just as the sun’s heat starts to wane, the beach area fills with people of all ages, many in brightly colored yukata. Locals wander around the food and festival game stalls and giggle with friends while the preliminaries – the opening ceremonies, taiko drumming and various dances are performed on the beach.

As night falls, fires are lit and people’s attention starts to turn to the beach as the main reenactments begin. It’s often quite difficult to work out just what is going on and what each reenactment is exactly about, but the whole thing is went to the represent the triumphant return of the suigun warriors dressed in samurai armor and the joyous reception provided to them by the villagers who have kept the home fires burning while they were away.

More and more bonfires and torches are lit, conch shells are blown, dances are danced, there is a grand parade suigun in samurai armor, traditional oar-powered kohaya boats circle the bay and scream into shore, and then, things get really interesting. Huge torches made of pine which are paraded by groups of locals who then charge at one another, letting off showers of fiery sparks.

The whole evening ends with more drumming, the punching of fists in the air of the assembled suigun warriors and big 15-minute fireworks display over the sea.

The Innoshima Suigun Fire Festival is held at the end of August or beginning of September every year at Shimanami Beach at Shimanami Amenity Park a short distance from the Innoshima Bridge on the Shimanami Kaido cycle route. Click here for the latest details.