Thursday, February 26, 2004

SUGAWARA I: The Famous Firewalking Ritual

So much life, so little time! Yesterday Echo and I just had to go to Sugawara Jinja (shrine) in Yasu across the Lake to see the famous Hiwatari Shinji (Firewalking Ritual) and it was indeed most impressive and multifaceted, so will take a few posts to do justice but I haven't yet sussed the photos I took so I'll just start right about here in plain old black and white by relating the most intriguing aspect of our sunny morning's journey to the renowned Shrine: the startling realization that no one in its vicinity had any idea where it was, or had ever heard of the Famous Fire Ritual being held there as it has for very possibly over 1000 years, since the Shrine is said to have been at that place for over 1300 years, apparently unfound for much of that time.

Because of the Firewalking Ritual's Fame we had assumed, and I still think quite rationally, despite the general history of such assumptions, that a precise map would be unnecessary. Thus it was that we drove, in the fog of that very assurance, straight through the clear morning to the general area, thence to traverse the narrow madding roads for some time-- through picturesque little villages and freshly watered rice paddies, all quite charming beneath the beautiful pre-Spring sky, but secondary at the moment-- looking for perhaps some pro tem signs to the Famous Fire Ritual, or there must be streams of people heading eagerly in one direction, mayhaps a column of sacred smoke in the distance: anything? Hello?

But no luck; finally we stopped and asked a lady tending a garden at a plant nursery. We showed her the crude map we'd brought, with a plant nursery marked here and another landmark marked there, and right between them: renowned Sugawara Shrine, site of the Famous Firewalking Ritual. The lady said "This right here is the very nursery you have marked on the map, but... Sugawara? Sugawara? Firewalking?" As she looked to the sky for an answer to our query, we figured she must be new here or something, but the Famous Firewalking Ritual would be starting any minute now, so...

We thanked the kind lady and pulled away, surely drawing ever closer to our renowned objective, but then maps are just pieces of paper of varying sizes and scales, aren't they, whereas the world and its contents stream by in their own way, shape and form, on a scale of strictly 1:1; you need some local, life-sized input, so we stopped a very old, guaranteed long-term local farmwoman walking along the roadside with her bicycle, a sure thing, she would definitely know the renowned Shrine, which anyway couldn't be more than a kilometer or two from where we were at the moment, with its Famous Firewalking Ritual now a millennium old, she must have seen it, certainly heard of it at least a dozen or more times in her 80 years or so of life, we asked and she said "Sugawara? Sugawara? Firewalking? What's that you say? Where?"

She too had never heard of the renowned Shrine or its Famous Firewalking Ritual (fame is funny that way), rambled on a bit oddly about other subjects, we thought maybe she was slightly over the edge into the greater truth, so we thanked her too and drove on till it began to get foresty, so we pulled over to turn around, must be going the wrong way since this clearly wasn't the right way, any more than all the other ways we'd tried thus far, and by chance there was an intelligent-looking elderly man there, getting his chainsaw ready for some forest work, so Echo got out and went over to ask him; they talked for a moment and then she ran into the forest.

By now, such odd behavior did not puzzle me in the least, for I knew from experience with such goings on, and from extended first-hand knowledge of the cosmic sense of humor, that we were onto something, there was some big entertaining going on here, whatever it was. Transcendant fun. A few moments later, Echo emerged from the forest and came back to the van. All the same, I had to ask. She said the old man had never heard of thousand-year-old Sugawara Shrine or its Famous Firewalking Ritual, but he said there were a bunch of guys in the forest taking a break, maybe one of them might know something about it; however, like so many of their neighbors, none among them had ever heard of the renowned Shrine, or its Famous Firewalking Ritual.

So, as everyone must now and then do in life, some metaphorically, others literally, we blundered on randomly this way and that, adviceless along the tiny alleys through villages and across the rice paddies in quest of the mysterious Shrine that is renowned yet unknown, until at last probability paid off and the laws of chance finally came down in our favor, in the form of a tiny sign on a telephone pole that said: "Sugawara Shrine," with an arrow pointing down a very narrow alley. So we went and the Shrine was in fact there, filled with quite a crowd for a place and an event that probably couldn't be found by so many others who wanted to be there, and then the interesting part began.