One of the most extraordinary festivals in Japan, Toba Dai Kagaribi (The Great Bonfire of Toba) is a designated National Intangible Folk Cultural Property with roots that can be traced back 1,200 years. The purpose of the festival, which takes place in February at the shrine of Toba Shinmeisha near the city of Nishio in the Chūbu region of Honshū, is to forecast the weather and harvest of the coming year by way of a highly ritualised and potentially dangerous competition between two teams of local men – one from the east side of the Toba River and one from the west. The east is known as Kanchi or “Dry Land” and the west is known as Fukuchi or “Prosperous Land”.
The festival incorporates a commonly held belief in Japan that certain years in a person’s lifetime are inauspicious. These years are known as your yakudoshi – unlucky years. Your unlucky years are 19, 33 and 37 if you are female, and 25, 42 and 61 if you are male. In acknowledgment of the potential danger and misfortune that might befall a person during these years, many Japanese people choose to undergo a ritual purification in the middle of a yakudoshi year, and will often visit temples and shrines to pray for better luck. In the example of Toba Dai Kagaribi, two local 25-year-old men (one from Kanchi and one from Fukuchi) are selected to participate in the festival as shin-otoko, or “holy men”. Being selected as a shin-otoko is considered a great honour, as it is believed that shin-otoko bring good fortune on themselves and others.
With an outer frame made from 60 bamboo poles tied tightly together, and a core filled with huge bundles of sun-dried Japanese pampas grass, each of these highly flammable towers stands approximately 5 metres tall and weighs more than 2 tons.
On the eve of the festival, in keeping with a centuries-old tradition, two enormous torches, known as suzumi, are built at Toba Shinmeisha. A sacred tree is placed at the centre of each suzumi during its construction and 12 ropes representing the 12 months of the year are wrapped around its base. With an outer frame made from 60 bamboo poles tied tightly together, and a core filled with huge bundles of sun-dried Japanese pampas grass, each of these highly flammable towers stands approximately 5 metres tall and weighs more than 2 tons.
The following day, in accordance with the Shinto practice of ritual purification known as misogi, the shin-otoko and the two teams of local men cleanse themselves of their sins and impurities by washing thoroughly in the sea nearby. Once the ritual of misogi is complete, the men make their way to the shrine of Toba Shinmeisha where they present tamagushi (a form of Shinto offering) and receiving blessings. Later that evening both teams emerge from the shrine wearing traditional festival costumes and head towards the suzumi where further offerings are made for a good harvest. Shortly thereafter, the suzumi are set alight and the teams begin to compete to see which of them can remove the sacred tree and 12 ropes from the burning towers fastest. This difficult task is made all the more challenging by the fact that it must be accomplished by hand, with minimal protection from the intense heat and smoke produced by the massive bonfires.
Once removed from the suzumi, the remains of the sacred tree and the 12 ropes are brought to Toba Shinmeisha by the winning team as an offering. The condition of these salvaged objects is then used to foresee the weather and the quality of the harvest for the coming year.