Japan has a slew of fire rituals, the most famous of which being Kyoto’s famous Daimonji Festival. These festivals, leveraging ancient notions of purification and renewal, continue to draw people even in the modern world. In Hiroshima, November offers two chances for visitors to experience ‘Hiwatari,’ or firewalking. The first is at Daiganji and the second at Daishoin, two old Shingon temples on Miyajima. Let’s take Daiganji first.
Daiganji is located just beyond the western exit from Itsukushima Shrine, which is where you’ll come out if you’ve bought your ticket and walked through. Daiganji’s age is uncertain, but it may be nearly as old as the Shrine itself, and under the old ‘bettoji’ system linking temples and shrines, Daiganji was in charge of carpentry and physical maintenance for Itsukushima. It is also one of Japan’s three most famous temples dedicated to the figure of Benzaiten, goddess of music, wisdom, and eloquence. Her image is open to viewing by the public once a year, on June 17. There are three other Buddhas enshrined here as well, along with a well-worn ‘nadebotoke,’ a wooden image of the arhat Binzuru that the faithful rub in places corresponding to their physical ailments.
In 2006 Daiganji’s Gomodo Hall was rebuilt for the first time in nearly a century and a half to house a new, four-meter tall sandalwood statue of Fudo Myo-o, the fierce Wisdom King who represents (among other things) steadfastness and the destruction of doubt and evil. Each year a festival is held in his honor. In 2018, it will take place on Saturday, November 3. The ritual begins with sutra reading and a goma burning ritual at 13:00. At 14:00, the firewalking begins, led by the priests of the temple. Visitors are welcome to participate but note that you will be required to remove your shoes and walk barefoot. Fortunately (or not), by the time you begin walking the coals will most likely have been trodden to a thin layer of barely warm ash. Still, the ritual is unusual, and afterward, you are welcome to a reception area for celebratory tea and cakes.
I’ve written about Daishoin here before. The head temple of Shingon’s Omuro sect is located farther up the slopes of Mt. Misen from Itsukushima, and is a fantastic place to explore even when nothing unusual is happening. But twice a year, you can line up with hundreds of other visitors, ranging from the devout faithful to tourists who’ve accidentally wandered in at the right time, to tread a path through burning coals. The ceremony takes place on April 15 and November 15, regardless of the day of the week. In 2018, November 15 is a Thursday, which means that if you can make it you’ll avoid the worst of the weekend crowds.
Daishoin’s firewalk ritual is linked closely to Shugendo, the syncretic mountain religion of the famous ‘yamabushi.’ The ceremony commences at 11:00, with sutra reading and offerings before the main Honden hall. Next, priests launch seven arrows into the sky, which more foolhardy believers will scramble to catch as they fall to earth. Yamabushi blow their conch horns, and the cypress bonfire is set ablaze. After it has burned down, the coals are raked out, and the firewalking begins. As at Daiganji, you’ll need to remove your shoes and, unless you manage to make it to the front of the line, the walk won’t be especially blistering. The ritual is guaranteed by believers to confer both health and luck on those who take part, so loosen your shoelaces and don’t be late.
Location: Daiganji and Daishoin Temples, both on Miyajima
Time: Daiganji: Saturday, November 3, 13:00 to about 15:00. Firewalking begins at 14:00.
Daishoin: Thursday, November 15, the ritual begins at 11:00.
Access: JR Ferry from Miyajimaguchi, 360 JPY round trip for adults, 180 JPY for children. From the Miyajima ferry terminal, Daiganji is a fifteen-minute walk, Daishoin about 25 minutes. English language maps of the island are available free in the ferry terminal.
Website: Miyajima’s official English website is here, and is very good: http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/