Monday, November 13, 2006

Sukagawa Fire Festival

Lying to the South of Koriyama, the sleepy little town of Sukagawa sprawls out into the rice fields of central Tohoku. While Sukagawa constitutes little more than a “suburb” of Koriyama, it is quite famous for its annual “Fire Festival.” Each year, thousands descend upon the town to commemorate the destruction of an ancient castle that once stood on a hill. Around 40 to 50 large towers are constructed to represent the castle. Standing 10 to 30 meters high, each tower is a heavy column filled with mostly hay and timber. At precisely six thirty, on Saturday night, they burn

While Brenden, Debbie and I spent the better part of the day worrying about precipitation ruining the festival, people were busy erecting the towers all day as the rain fell. We watched them finish hoisting the last two upon our arrival. Using extendable ladders, wooden poles, ropes, and pulleys, groups of uniformed festival volunteers shouted chants to synchronize and coordinate their efforts. Silence ensued for a short bit as several people shuffled around to prepare another lifting. As silence fell upon the audience shortly before the completion of this task, a cry penetrated the rain soaked darkness. A single lone voice from the swirling mass of uniforms shouted into the crowd,"HEY BRENT!!"
"Get a picture of this $#イと!!"

Upon closer inspection, this particular individual had blonde hair, blue eyes, and an Australian accent.

Prior to coming, I had agreed to meet another friend named Kaori at the festival, a preschool teacher who I know from my local gym, Peare. She showed up with a friend from her preschool, and we all ate tonjiru as I made introductions. I was happy when she did show up, because they both had umbrellas that we could share, and we weren’t stuck with Brenden’s. But the rain kept pouring, and we all got wet despite the umbrellas. I felt sorry for Kaori’s friend Maiko, who was wearing girly sandals in the mud.

As we stood around making small talk, an army of little children filed past. The children were holding small wooden fishing poles, on the ends of which were suspended arcane glowing balls of fire. Police and firemen shouted to make way, as over two hundred children marched up the hill and into the area. The burning of the columns was soon imminent.

Following this, people started climbing tall ladders up the sides of the columns, holding large torches. Shoving them into the tops of the columns, they quickly descended as the pillars slowly smoldered in the rain, and then lit up the night in a spectacular display.

Words cannot describe the majestic flaming maelstrom blazing right in front of us. Smoke poured into the sky as the burning conflagration rose up to defy the endless rain falling against it. We watched until nearly all the pyres turned to crumbled masses of embers on the ground. Then we all went out to eat at an Izakaya (bar &grill).

To read Brenden's take, see his blog here.

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