Tondo Festivals in Hiroshima in 2022

ByMichael Stigall
Dec 27, 2021

Tondo Festivals in Hiroshima in 2022

Once you get through the usual New Year’s activities, there is one last thing to enjoy called the Tondo festival. The Tondo festival is part of ‘Koshagatsu,’ marking the traditional lunar new year. You will see gatherings in public parks, school grounds, and shrine courtyards where people gather around towering bonfires of bamboo. These bonfires are where people throw their ‘shimekazari,’ New Year’s ornaments that appear each December above the doors of homes and businesses. At shrine events, you may also see celebrants tossing on last year’s ‘hamaya’ arrows and other talismans, ridding themselves of the last traces of the previous year.

Many Tondo are relatively small local affairs and can be a great way to interact with your neighbors. The fires, often lit by either local firemen or occasionally by children (assisted by adults) bearing long torches. The results can be pretty dramatic as the bamboo kindles quickly, and the flames rapidly rise into the air with loud pops and small explosions caused by the hollow stems of the bamboo. These noises can also send children squealing behind the nearest adult. As a fun fact, it said that if you burn your first letter of the year in the tondo fire, and it rises high with the flames and smoke, your handwriting will improve. If you are learning traditional calligraphy or have children learning to write or simply have “doctor’s handwriting,” like me, then give it a try.

Often, there will be something to eat nearby as well. You may have the chance to take a turn at the stone mortar where ‘mochi’ rice cakes are made. It is harder than it looks. Steamed rice is pounded repeatedly with large wooden mallets until a smooth paste is achieved. This paste is quickly formed into cakes and either grilled, sometimes over the remains of the bonfire itself, or simmered in a thick bean soup called ‘zenzai,’ a classic taste of winter in Japan. There may also be hot tea and warm cups of sweet sake to ward off the chill.

Tondo Festivals around Hiroshima

Because of the community aspect, it is worth asking around to find out if there’s a Tondo festival in your neighborhood.  If you are out of luck in the neighborhood, though, Hiroshima city and its environs have several large festivals which can draw large crowds and take on a more elaborate atmosphere than some local Tondos. 

The Tondos are held on the night of January 14 or the daytime of January 15, as it is the first full moon of the year in the lunar calendar. However, some shrines hold it in the day on a Sunday or Saturday near the 15th for the convenience of visitors.

It varies from region to region, but it is best to remember that this event is held in many places from early to mid-January. Here are a few of the better ones.

Gokoku Shrine

Within the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, this large shrine’s Tondo festival is one of the most popular in the city. Unlike some other festivals, this one is always held on January 15, no matter the day of the week. Expect large numbers of spectators and a more festive feeling. Fun features are the firemen dressed in traditional garb and the mochi that’s grilled on long poles held over the embers of the fire before being distributed to the crowd.

Time: Saturday, January 15, lighting at 10:00

Place: Gokoku Shrine grounds, within the walls of Hiroshima Castle

Itsukushima Shrine

At the UNESCO World Heritage Itsukushima Shrine, this Tondo takes place at low tide on the stretch of sea-damp sand between the shrine itself and its famous torii gate. The Tondo is a pleasantly unpretentious affair, and the impression I’ve often had is that most visitors happen upon it by luck. The sea, fire, open-air, and crimson shrine architecture make quite a magical combination.

Time: Friday, January 14, 15:00 – 16:30

Place: Mikasa-no-hama Beach, Miyajima (in front of Itsukushima Shrine)

Sorasaya Shrine

The Tondo festival at this small shrine, a short walk northwest of Hiroshima’s Peace Park, on the west bank of the Ota River, strikes a nice balance between a small neighborhood festival and one that welcomes visitors from farther afield. The festival takes place in a small adjacent park and playground, making it a good choice for families with children. If you want a more intimate atmosphere than you’ll find at Gokoku Shrine and something closer to the city center than Itsukushima, head to Sorasaya Shrine.

Time: Monday, January 10, lighting at 13:00

Place: Sorasaya Park, immediately north of the shrine.

Tokumeigakarinoaoshima, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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