Fiery finale to spectacular Spring Sagicho festival in Japan

THIS is the moment revellers set fire to a parade float and reduce it to a pile of ashes during a crowded street party – but relax, it’s all part of the proceedings at a festival that’s reckoned to be among the most dangerous in Japan.

Each year, the Sagicho Fire Festival is celebrated in communities across the country, and the parade in Omihachiman is one of the most spectacular, with carefully crafted floats to represent each of the city’s 13 neighbourhoods.

But, despite spending three months building the floats, each team has a burning ambition – to see their painstakingly put together project go up in flames as they mark the end of winter and the arrival of spring. Then they take the ashes home for good luck.

It is, says ex-pat tourist guide and artist Kendal James as we join the crowd around the Himure Hachimangu Shrine – the starting point for the festivities – a heated affair that would be seen as a health and safety nightmare back home in Britain.

Read more: They have flaming fantastic fire festivals in the UK too

There are no barriers between blazes and rowdy revellers, some of whom have been dousing their floats with booze as the procession winds its way through the crowded streets. Although police and fire marshals are to be seen, it all appears a bit haphazard.

During the day, the floats, each bearing the representation of a rabbit to mark the Year of the Rabbit, have been paraded around the streets. Some are up to eight metres high, and require as many as 40 people to carry them, each community hoping to be judged the best.

But it’s as darkness falls that the event takes on, quite literally, a new light.

At the heart of each splendid float is a pine torch, topped by a tall bamboo pole festooned with strips of red paper to represent flames, and other objects designed to bring good luck, including dice that look as though they have been super-sized from Mah Jongg sets.

And once torchbearers set light to them, the fire spreads fast, fuelled in part by the custom of using food, fish and seeds – and, of course, all that paper – among the building materials.

“The heat is insane,” says Kendal as the latest of the 13 floats ignites close by. “It feels like my eyebrows are being singed. There are no barriers anywhere, and people are jumping and dancing close to the flames. Health & Safety would have a field day with this in the UK.”

It’s an emotional affair, too. Quite apart from the spiritual side of things, the creators of the floats are often loathe to leave them until the last minute, clinging to their constructions, embracing each other and saying a tearful farewell to all that hard work.

There are children’s floats as well, with beautifully costumed kids bearing more modest models through the festival. We spot traditional Japanese folklore masks although it’s clear the event has moved with the times when a teen dressed as Pokemon Pikachu passes us by.

The origins of this festival date back more than 400 years, reputedly to the time of a Samurai warlord named Oda Nobunaga in the 1500s. It’s reckoned that he either started the spectacle himself, and loved dancing around the fires, or it was first staged to mark his passing.

After his death, it is said that his castle was ravaged by an unquenchable fire, so it seems a fitting tribute either way you look at it. Others point to the fact that Sagicho fire festivals have been practised in Japan since the 13th century so were already on the calendar.

Kendal James is no stranger to regular readers of this blog, a British writer, artist and tour guide with online travel streamer Heygo, and on social media. She has lived in Japan for three years.

Read more: Mind-blowing magic at Osaka art extravaganza

To check out Kendal’s upcoming virtual tours, take a look at her Heygo channel here. The platform offers real time tours, live chat, a map and the opportunity to take ‘postcard’ photos remotely.

Most Heygo tours are free to join, but tipping the guides is encouraged, typically from £5 here in the UK.

Categories:Asia, heygoTags: , , , , ,

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