The countless flavors of festivals in Japan are grounded in a few common themes. One of the most prevalent involves giving thanks for a successful harvest, and is the idea behind Asama Onsen’s Taimatsu Matsuri. But this festival goes beyond simply extending gratitude to the gods. In Asama, saying thank you means turning the streets of town into a smoky exercise in playing with fire. If you happen to be in town in mid-October, we highly recommend joining in.
Fanning the Flames of Thanks
The pyrotechnics begin with the residents of Asama Onsen, who form groups with their neighbors or their local organizations, in many cases one of the hot spring hotels in town. Each group fashions a pillar of straw around two meters tall, and as dusk approaches they light the tops on fire, turning them into massive flaming torches. They then proceed to carry, pull, push and drag these big fiery bales of hay through the streets and uphill toward east-lying Misha Harumiya Shrine.
The fire represents the people’s offering of thanks to the deities for granting a plentiful growing season. The billows of smoke that come along with it are more than incidental. As each successive group reaches Misha Harumiya Shrine they add their flaming pillar to the growing pile, creating a virtual smokeway to heaven on which the gods who protected and blessed the land return to their home in the firmament.
Joining in the Dirty, Fiery Fun
Having your eyes burn from the relentless smoke and getting your hair, clothes and skin singed by flying bits of fire is good fun, and the participants in the festival are only too eager to grab innocent bystanders and pull them into the middle of the action. But not to worry – if you get too close the worst that will (probably) happen is you’ll get some soot smeared on your cheeks.
As they make their way through the streets and up toward the shrine, the people in the festival will grab at the flaming tops of their straw taimatsu, caking their rough cotton gloves in soot and then wiping it on the faces of their fellow revelers. By the time they reach Misha Harumiya everyone’s faces are black with soot. This, it is said, guarantees good health in the coming year. It’s also great fun. And the festival’s participants are just as happy to smear the faces of anyone and everyone around, inviting them to do the same. – if they dare.
If you plan on going to the Taimatsu Fire Festival, try to get your hands on a pair of cotton work gloves commonly known as ‘gunte’. And wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty!
Getting to the Festival
Asama Onsen’s Taimatsu Matsuri Fire Festival takes place each year on the second Saturday in October. As it’s a solid hour walk from downtown Matsumoto you may want to catch a bus, which you can take from right in front of the train station.
The 2023 Asama Onsen's Fire Festival will be held on October 14th from 19:00 to 21:30
As with any festival in Japan you can be sure there will be plenty of food and drink to be had, along with plenty of people to enjoy the festival with. But this may be your only chance to join in a festival that encourages playing with fire. Consider yourself warned – and invited!