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Summer Ends With Ikeda's Gangarabi Matsuri Festival

I am an expat living in Japan. Every day is an adventure and a blessing. Here are some of my most memorable experiences.

The kanji "dai-ichi" or "big one" burning atop of Satsuki Mountain seen from the Inagawa River

The kanji "dai-ichi" or "big one" burning atop of Satsuki Mountain seen from the Inagawa River

One of the Last Summer Festivals in Japan

One of the last summer festivals in Japan is the Gangarabi Matsuri. It honors the god of Satsuki Mountain by setting it on fire. It is held annually on August 24 in Ikeda, near Osaka. Also part of the event are four of the biggest flaming torches you'll ever see being paraded through downtown Ikeda.

The kanji symbols "dai" and "dai-ichi" are lit on two sides of Satsuki Mountain. These symbols are massive, and their sacred flames can be seen for miles. "Dai" is Japanese for "big," and "dai-ichi" translates as "big one."

Gangarabi is short for Gangara Himatsuri, which translates into "Gangara Fire Festival." If you're going, keep up with the torches. They're hot and it'll be crowded, but it's as much fun as you'll have with fire in Japan!

The four torches of the festival

The four torches of the festival

What you see above are the four torches standing upright. As you can see, they are easily twice as tall as the men who carry them, and they weigh as much as 100 kilos each. Although they are cylindrical, they come to a sharp point towards the bottom.

They are dragged and carried upright throughout downtown Ikeda, two by two. The first two torches are leaned against one another and are followed by the next two torches leaning against each other. It's OK if they fall down or are carried horizontally for a few minutes. I saw both happen frequently.

This is all done by men—no women or children or animals. There are no wheels or engines involved either. This is not easy.

Let's get a closer look. Here, the first two torches are leaned up against each other.

Let's get a closer look. Here, the first two torches are leaned up against each other.

Before I even saw the flames, I smelled them. Also, I heard the loud clang of a single bell. A man hit the bell about once per second. He was at the end of the parade and walked at its pace.

As I got closer, the smell was stronger. It was a burning evergreen smell. By this time, the chanting was louder as well. It wasn't religious but rigorous—the crew chanted to keep each other motivated and moving.

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By the time I saw the torches, I felt the heat. This was very real. I had to be careful or I could get hurt. Fortunately, there were security guards around the torches and the fire department was nearby as well.

Cool! Let's follow it!

When I decided to follow the torches, I realized I wasn't the only one. There was a parade of spectators. The torches led the way, surrounded by security, followed by the man with the bell, followed by locals and tourists.

This wasn't like any other summer festival. With the people moving together in a single mass, there were no stalls or vendors. Some of the local cafes and restaurants put up a table in front of their entrances but that was it. It was festive but not laid back. It was exciting.

When the torches reached Ikeda City Hall, the men put them down on the street. There was a small speech by an elected official (or maybe he was a local celebrity). Once that was finished, the first pair went off. Then from across the street, a parade of children moved in. Each had his/her own small torch or bell. Once they were following the first pair of torches, the second pair followed them.

This seemed a bit dangerous to me. But as quickly as the children entered the parade, they left for their own route.

But why? And where?

With everything involved, it's easy to ask what this is all about. Why are they doing this? I asked a couple of locals and they told me that this is the way it's been for hundreds of years, since the 1600s.

On August 24, the torches are carried throughout the city, their smoke and light drive away evil. The sacred fires that light Satsuki Mountain serve a similar purpose.

As the torches burned throughout the evening, bits of ash and charred wood fell off. Some of the locals, especially children, collected it. It's for good luck. I'm not sure if this validates the reason for the festival or defeats its purpose but I decided to keep some myself—for further study, of course.

The parade ended at the Atago Shrine, a Shinto shrine at the foot of the mountain. There, a priest was waiting. The fires were put out. Unfortunately, I didn't get close enough to see how: maybe water or sand. He said few prayers, we cheered a bit and it was all over.

By then it was 11pm: time to call it a night.

The final prayers of the priest

The final prayers of the priest

© 2012 Cecil Kenmill

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