Fire Walking Festivals in Japan - Hiwatari matsuri

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Annual Event: January Star Festival/Hiwatari
  3. Other Fire Walking Festivals in Japan
  4. General Information about Fire Walking in Japan
  5. January 28th - Once a Year Sacred Fire Festival
  6. Festival Day Schedule
  7. Firewalking to Ward Off Evil (with a Video!)
  8. Taking a Hot Bath to Ward Off Evil Spirits


Fire walking festivals in Japan are a captivating blend of tradition, spirituality, and communal celebration. Rooted in ancient practices influenced by Shugendo and Buddhism, these festivals showcase the unison of ascetics and believers as they partake in rituals believed to purify the spirit and ward off evil forces.

Participants willingly walk across fiery paths, demonstrating their unwavering faith in a world where elements of Buddha, fire, and prayer converge. Join us on a journey through the mystical and awe-inspiring world of fire walking festivals in Japan.


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Annual Event: January Star Festival/Hiwatari

The January Star Festival, also known as Hiwatari, is a sacred fire festival held annually on January 28th at the esteemed Rinzaiji Temple in Oita City. This event marks a culmination of a series of rituals, prayers, and festivities that begin from New Year's Day.

Inside the main hall, the air resonates with the continuous chanting of sutras, creating a spiritually charged atmosphere. Pilgrims and believers who come to pray at Rinzaiji on this day receive blessings and leave with radiant smiles, embodying the essence of this once-a-year grand festival.

The day unfolds with pilgrims arriving as early as 7 am, creating a lively and bustling ambiance. By the time the firewalking ceremony commences at 11:00 a.m., the shrine grounds are filled with people seeking amulets, gomagi, and the spiritual experience of walking over hot embers.


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Rituals Leading to the Festival

Before the grand event, a series of rituals and prayers take place in the days leading up to the January Star Festival. These preparatory activities contribute to the spiritual buildup and significance of the main ceremony.

Cultural Traditions

The January Star Festival is not only a religious event but also a celebration of cultural traditions. Participants often don traditional clothing, engage in specific types of food consumption, and partake in other customs that add to the cultural richness of the festival.

Other Fire Walking Festivals in Japan

While the January Star Festival at Rinzaiji is a prominent event, Japan hosts various fire walking festivals throughout the year, each with its unique traditions and significance. Some notable festivals include:

  • Shuni-e Fire Walking at Todai-ji: Held in Nara, this festival is a part of the Shuni-e ceremony, where monks walk on burning embers to pray for the well-being of the nation.
  • Kurama Fire Festival: Taking place at Kurama-dera in Kyoto, this festival features a spectacular firewalking display as part of the mountain monks' ascetic practices.
  • Hiwatari-Sai at Mount Takao: Located near Tokyo, this festival involves fire walking on the sacred mountain as a purification ritual.

Ceremonial Practices

Each festival mentioned has unique ceremonial practices. Delve deeper into the specific rituals and activities associated with the Shuni-e Fire Walking, Kurama Fire Festival, and Hiwatari-Sai at Mount Takao.

Geographical Significance

The geographical location of each festival plays a crucial role in shaping its character. Explore how the natural surroundings and historical context contribute to the distinctive features of these events.

General Information about Fire Walking in Japan

Fire walking, known as "hiwatari," holds a significant place in Japanese religious and cultural practices. Rooted in the belief that walking on fire purifies the spirit and wards off evil, the ritual is often associated with ascetic practices influenced by Buddhism and Shugendo.

Participants undergo rigorous mental and physical preparation, often guided by experienced practitioners or spiritual leaders. The act of walking over hot embers is seen as a demonstration of faith, courage, and the power to overcome adversity.

January 28th - Once a Year Sacred Fire Festival

Inside the main hall during the January 28th festival at Rinzaiji, a tapestry of sacred ceremonies unfolds, each imbued with spiritual significance. The ceremonies aim to create a deeply immersive and spiritually charged atmosphere:

    1. Continuous Sutra Chanting:

      • Monks and attendees engage in the continuous chanting of sutras throughout the day. The rhythmic recitation resonates within the hall, creating an ambiance saturated with spiritual energy.
      • The chanting serves as a collective invocation, drawing upon the power of sacred words to purify the surroundings and instill a sense of divine presence.
    2. Blessings in the Main Hall:

      • Those who come to pray receive blessings within the main hall. The chief priest, adorned in ceremonial attire, performs rituals to invoke divine favor and positive energies for the attendees.
      • The atmosphere within the main hall is serene, fostering a sense of reverence and connection to the spiritual realm.


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  1. Preparation for the Firewalking Ceremony:

    • As the day progresses, preparations for the firewalking ceremony intensify. The main hall becomes a focal point for participants to gather, offering their prayers and intentions for the upcoming ritual.
    • Symbolic items and artifacts are arranged with precision, enhancing the sanctity of the space and emphasizing the transition from prayers to the imminent firewalking ceremony.
  2. Choito Goma and Fire-Shami Firewalking:

    • At 11:00 a.m., the transformative Choito Goma ceremony commences. The chief priest leads the proceedings, marking the beginning of the fire-shami firewalking.
    • The chief priest performs fire-extinguishing etiquette and cuts a 9-character sign as he crosses the embers, symbolizing the triumph over impurities and obstacles.
  3. Prayers for Good Fortune:

    • Pilgrims and participants engage in fervent prayers for the prosperity of the upcoming year. The firewalking ritual becomes a conduit for these prayers, seeking blessings for safety, good health, and overall well-being.
    • The entire ceremony is a harmonious convergence of Buddhist teachings, fire symbolism, and collective aspirations for a purified existence.

Participation Experience:

The participation experience in the January 28th festival at Rinzaiji transcends the physical acts of prayer and fire walking, delving into the realms of personal narratives and shared journeys:

  1. Spiritual Connection:

    • Participants often express a profound sense of spiritual connection during the continuous sutra chanting. The repetitive nature of the chants creates a meditative environment, allowing individuals to feel deeply attuned to their inner selves and the divine.
  2. Emotional Resonance:

    • As participants receive blessings in the main hall, many describe experiencing a range of emotions, from gratitude to a sense of tranquility. The rituals within the main hall serve as a conduit for emotional release and spiritual rejuvenation.
  3. Facing the Fire:

    • Narratives from those who partake in the firewalking ceremony highlight a mix of trepidation and exhilaration. Walking across the embers becomes a transformative act, symbolizing the courage to face challenges and emerge purified on the other side.
  4. Community Bonding:

    • Personal stories often emphasize the communal nature of the festival. Participants share moments of camaraderie, mutual support, and a shared pursuit of spiritual growth. The collective energy of the community becomes a source of strength and inspiration.
  5. Prayers Materialized:

    • Participants attest to the tangible impact of their prayers during and after the festival. Whether seeking protection, health, or prosperity, many share anecdotes of positive occurrences in their lives, attributing them to the blessings invoked during the festival.

These narratives and experiences offer readers a more immersive understanding of the event, showcasing how the January 28th festival at Rinzaiji goes beyond rituals, becoming a personal and collective journey toward spiritual enrichment.

Festival Day Schedule

On the day of the Star Festival, pilgrims begin arriving at Rinzaiji from 7 am...


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Preparation Activities

Before the pilgrims arrive at Rinzaiji, the temple grounds come alive with meticulous preparations, ensuring a seamless and spiritually charged event. Behind-the-scenes activities include:

  • Temple Decoration: Skilled artisans and volunteers adorn the temple with vibrant decorations, including traditional symbols and auspicious motifs. This sets the stage for a visually captivating and spiritually uplifting atmosphere.
  • Cleansing Rituals: Priests and attendants perform cleansing rituals to purify the sacred space. This involves symbolic gestures and prayers aimed at creating a spiritually charged environment conducive to the upcoming ceremonies.
  • Sutra Chanting: Inside the main hall, monks engage in continuous sutra chanting, invoking divine blessings and setting the tone for the day's sacred events. The resonance of these chants permeates the temple grounds, creating an atmosphere of serenity and devotion.
  • Arrangement of Sacred Objects: Various sacred objects and artifacts are carefully arranged, each holding significance in the rituals to come. This attention to detail reflects the commitment to maintaining the sanctity of the festival.
  • Fire Preparation: The preparation of the firewalking path involves arranging the sacred fire pit and ensuring the quality of the embers. This task is performed with great care, as the firewalking ceremony is a central focus of the event.

Community Engagement

As the day unfolds, a strong sense of community and camaraderie permeates the atmosphere, enhancing the spiritual experience for all participants. Local businesses and residents play a crucial role in contributing to the festival's vibrant ambiance:

  • Food Stalls and Offerings: Local vendors set up food stalls offering traditional delicacies and refreshments. Pilgrims and visitors can partake in these offerings, creating a sense of shared celebration and sustenance.
  • Artistic Performances: Traditional performances, such as dance, music, or theatrical presentations, contribute to the cultural richness of the event. Local artists often showcase their talents, adding a dynamic and festive element to the celebration.
  • Community Workshops: Workshops and exhibitions highlighting local craftsmanship and cultural practices create interactive spaces for festival-goers. These engagements foster a deeper appreciation for the community's heritage and traditions.
  • Collaboration with Local Businesses: Businesses in the vicinity actively participate by sponsoring aspects of the festival, contributing resources, or organizing special events. This collaborative spirit strengthens the bond between the temple and the local community.
  • Volunteer Support: The festival relies on the dedicated support of volunteers from the community. Their efforts range from assisting in organizational tasks to ensuring the comfort and safety of participants, showcasing a collective commitment to the success of the event.

Firewalking to Ward Off Evil

At 11:00 a.m. on January 28th, when the souls are on fire...

Symbolic Meaning of Firewalking

Symbolism and Beliefs

The act of fire walking in Japanese culture is laden with profound symbolism, representing a powerful spiritual journey. Key aspects include:

  • Purification: Fire walking is seen as a transformative process where the fire symbolizes impurities and obstacles. By walking across the hot embers, participants believe they cleanse themselves of negativity and emerge spiritually purified.
  • Courage and Faith: The willingness to walk on fire is an embodiment of courage and faith. Participants trust in the divine protection and view the act as a demonstration of their commitment to overcoming challenges and adversities in life.
  • Connection to Nature: The ritual often takes place outdoors, connecting participants with the natural elements. The fire is considered a conduit between the earthly realm and the divine, fostering a harmonious relationship with nature.
  • Celebration of Spirituality: Fire walking is not only a personal endeavor but a communal celebration of spirituality. Participants come together to share in the collective energy, reinforcing a sense of unity and shared purpose.


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As participants traverse the fiery path, the symbolism embedded in each step serves as a transformative and introspective experience, fostering a deep connection with the spiritual realm.

Influence of Buddhism and Shugendo

The roots of fire walking in Japan can be traced back to the influence of Buddhism and Shugendo, shaping the philosophical underpinnings of the practice:

  • Buddhist Influence: Within Buddhism, fire walking aligns with the concept of ascetic practices aimed at transcending earthly attachments. The act is seen as a form of self-discipline and a means to attain spiritual enlightenment.
  • Shugendo Practices: Shugendo, a Japanese spiritual practice with roots in esoteric Buddhism, emphasizes asceticism and enlightenment through physical endurance. Fire walking becomes a ritualistic expression of overcoming worldly desires and purifying the mind and body.
  • Philosophical Aspects: Participants in fire walking often embody Buddhist principles such as impermanence, detachment, and the pursuit of inner peace. The ritual serves as a meditation in action, where the physical challenge becomes a conduit for spiritual growth.

By incorporating Buddhist and Shugendo principles, fire walking in Japan transcends a mere physical act and becomes a profound spiritual journey—one that aligns with the philosophical teachings of self-discovery and enlightenment.

Taking a Hot Bath to Ward Off Evil Spirits

After the firewalk to ward off bad luck on the day of full prayer...


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Ancient Ritual Significance

Centuries ago, the hot bath ritual served as a vital component of purification following the intense firewalking ceremony. The heat from the bath was believed to cleanse not only the physical body but also the spiritual self. It symbolized a transition from the fiery trials to a state of renewed purity.

Rooted in Shugendo and Buddhist principles, this tradition mirrors the concept of purifying the mind and body, allowing participants to rid themselves of negative energies and connect more profoundly with the divine.

Modern Interpretations

In the present day, the hot bath ritual has evolved while preserving its fundamental significance. Modern interpretations see this practice not only as a continuation of purification but also as a means of relaxation and rejuvenation.

Contemporary participants often view the hot bath as a therapeutic experience, providing a moment of reflection and a release of tensions accumulated during the intense firewalking event. Some festivals may incorporate spa-like facilities or communal bathing areas, offering a communal and cleansing atmosphere.

Unique to Oita's recent events, participants also experience a refreshing shower of boiling water. Bamboo sticks adorned with long leaves are dipped in the hot water and thrown into the air, creating a cascading shower effect. This communal shower further symbolizes the cleansing and purifying aspects of the ritual, fostering a sense of unity among the participants.

While the core symbolism remains intact, the modern embrace of the hot bath ritual, along with the distinctive shower element, reflects the adaptability of traditional practices to meet the spiritual and physical needs of participants in today's world.


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