If you’ve ever been to a festival in Japan, you know they’re different from festivals in other parts of the world. The Japanese host festivals to celebrate religion, dance, snow, fertility, food and so much more. I’ve been to many, and just the other day I experienced a fire festival for the very first time.
Every year, to celebrate the end of Mount Fuji’s climbing season, the city of Fujiyoshida throws a fire festival. This festival, called Yoshida no Himatsuri, happens on August 26th and 27th. The story behind this celebration stems from Japanese mythology and the tale of Konohana-Sakuya Hime, blossom-princess and goddess of Mount Fuji. Legend has it that her deity husband accused her of cheating because she became pregnant too quickly. To prove her fidelity, she set her room on fire while giving birth. The goddess proclaimed that the child would not be hurt if it was truly his. She then gave birth to THREE bouncing baby boys. The flames of the festival are said to represent the fire Konohana-Sakuya Hime set to prove her innocence.
The goddess is revered at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen shrine. For the first day of the festival, residents line a two-kilometer stretch of road from the shrine to the city center with more than 70 nine-foot torches. In the late afternoon, a portable shrine that contains the goddess’s soul, along with a shrine the replicates Mount Fuji, are carried from the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen to the Kamiyoshida Community Center. After the shrines reach the city, the torches are lit and the street becomes a sea of fire. It’s beautiful. And very hot.
Like all Japanese festivals, this one features an abundance of food booths. Just picture a mile-long stretch of road lined with stall after stall of tasty edibles, from traditional yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles) to Turkish kebabs. Food is one of my favorite things, and in my opinion, the best part of any festival. The options at this one did NOT disappoint. Everything I tasted was incredible. The Brazilian pastel de carne was crispy and savory and delicious. The beef skewers were juicy and well seasoned. But my absolute favorite was the takoyaki (octopus balls). I’m particular about this dish because not all takoyaki is created equal. Some can be soggy and octopus-lite. But the ones from the stand I chose… heavenly! He used fresh octopus and did not overcompensate with too many fish flakes. The frozen strawberry concoction I ordered was also a highlight.
Food is not the only cool thing about this festival. There are also a few carnival games along the street and little square with entertainment. I really enjoyed watching the taiko drummers. The ones who played when I went were particularly fun to watch because so many of them were kids. Seeing little humans bang on those big drums with such enthusiasm is fun.
While my friends and I had a great time at this festival, we did learn a few things. First, don’t get there too early. Unless you want to walk all the way up to the shrine and walk back as they bring it in, you don’t need to get there earlier than 4 pm (1600). Even 5 pm (1700) is early enough. We wanted to see the shrine get carried into the community center, and that didn’t happen until about 6:20 pm (1820). We got there at about 2:30 pm (1430) and felt like it was way too early (unless you want to check out other sites in Fujiyoshida). The festival doesn’t really start until after the shrine is carried in. Second, the community center is about halfway between the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen shrine and the Torii gate, which is actually where the festival ends. If you wait by the Torii gate, you will not see the portable shrine get carried through the city. And third, you can park for free (something incredibly rare in Japan) at the pachinko parlor parking lot, just make you access it before the main road closes, or from the tiny side streets in the back.