The Fire Festival

Sara Portesan

My grandmother told me there was not supposed to be any rain, but encouraged me to take a small umbrella anyway. I’ll be fine, I had said.   The fire festival (unlike the Jidai Matsuri, which was supposed to be that afternoon but cancelled because of a chance of rain) wouldn’t cancel for anything. If a fire festival could withstand some water, so could I.

I met Ayana (a Doshisha student who studied abroad at Whitman my freshman year) at the subway station by our school at 2 and we walked to the train station from there. We had planned to go at noon, but I went to yoga with my grandmother and so we pushed it back. I had wondered why Ayana wanted to leave so early, as the festival didn’t start until 6, but figured she just liked my company.  While that may have been part of it, the bigger reason is probably that there is only one train that goes up into the mountains where this festival takes place (Kurama) and this festival is very popular. Everyone likes fire.

So. Our train is already packed full of people (and its only around 2:15!) but we make it on the first train we see and arrive at Kurama in about a half hour.  There, they already had poles and ropes set up for the return line home to the station. It was rather intimidating, and right there we decided around 9 or 10 would be a good time to return home. The festival wasn’t supposed to end until 12, but my curfew was eleven and besides, we wanted to beat the rush.

Guess who we saw almost the moment we stepped off the train?

That is correct. Ninja dog. I told you, he (she?) is everywhere. (Also, notice the ropes for the line expected for the train ride home in the background)

Anyway. We decided to go to the shrine where the fire festival starts. There is a cable car you can take to the top, but I wanted to look at the scenery and thus we began our steep ascent.


Nice, no?

It was a little cloudy, but I believed the weather gods would watch out for us. I was mistaken. In the midst of our trek up the mountain side amid the trees we hear the unmistakable crack of thunder (that still reminds me of garbage days at home. But anyway…).   Soon, a drop of rain. Another drop. Another crash of thunder (it sounded so close!). Ayana, being wiser and older than me, pops out the folding umbrella she had brought and lets me share it with her.   The thunder continues to roll, and I am looking at the trees and listening to the lovely sounds and I say, Ayana! I am so happy! I love rain! I love thunder! I love mountains. And she just sort of laughs at me and then we break down laughing together and the guy walking behind us sort of looks at us funny.

As happy as I was though, the rain was starting to pick up, and it was only 4, and I didn’t want us to be drenched before the festival started. We start walking back down, and now it really starts to rain. Zaa zaa rain, as they say in Japan. We take cover under an old building where other people soon join us, and we all sit it out together.


We eat what we had bought at the train station (lots of pan (sweet bread) and chocolate, yum) and wait. I predict the rain will stop in 30 minutes. An hour goes by. Then another twenty minutes. By now, most other people ventured out and returned down the mountain. But I was enjoying the rain and sitting in this spot under other circumstances people are probably not supposed to sit. Josephine met us around 5:30, and right about then a guard came by and said we had to leave (the shrine was closing?) so we headed down to the streets. I felt like a rebel, being kicked out of a shrine at night in Japan.

Once we stood up and started walking, we could still hear the rush of the rain, but when I stuck my hand out, it wasn’t raining. A thought struck us as we put away our umbrellas. It may not have been raining as hard as we thought for quite some time. We probably were hearing the river, and seeing the water fall from the roof and nearby trees, not from the sky.

But are waiting was not to end there, oh no. I’ve written more than I have time for already, so let’s do the rest in pictures, shall we?



It really looked like a riot was about to happen, if not already happening. We got pushed into these lines, and people in white ponchos kept telling everyone to move.



And so we all kept moving, while thinking, where is the fire? Where is the festival? Why are they telling us to go this way? Where are we going, why have we stopped, why is it raining?



Oh, the rain.  Every time we put our umbrella down, a downpour would start. Not to mention Josephine’s umbrella leaked, and everyone was so packed in umbrellas were dripping water down everyones’ backs. But finally, finally!





Children and or men would lift up these big, burning stacks of something and carry them down the road to the shrine. It was pretty cool! Some of them were wearing very little, like the man below.  It is good they were close to the fire, because being all wet and not next to a fire was rather cold.




And so! The fire festival was incredibly fun. There was thunder and rain and lines and fire, and I couldn’t have asked for more. Except maybe my umbrella.

We left pretty early as we were damp and wanted to beat the crowds. We ate warm ramen at a cool little shop near our school and it was so delicious and welcome after standing in the rain. And so, the fire festival (Himatsuri) was a success! I still smile thinking about it…




One last note: This building is across the street from my house. What do you think of it? I know nothing of it other that what it looks like. ia sked my family, but they don’t know either:


It only has those two doors and no windows…. Perhaps this will be next week’s adventure.