The Nachi Fire Festival is one of Japan's cultural gems. Listed as an intangible cultural asset the festival has a history of more than 1500 years and is one of the most spectacular festivals of the summer. Held on July 14th each year, the Nachi no Hi Matsuri or Nachi Ogi Matsuri (Fan Festival) is a traditional fire festival involving ritual offerings, music and dance. The festival is held in a remote area of the Yoshino-Kumano National Park on the Kii Peninsula. The shrines where the Nachi Fire Festival takes place are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine and the Hiryu shrine, which is located at the base of the massive Nachi waterfall, which with a 133 meter (about 436 feet) drop is the highest waterfall in Japan.
The festival involves 12 (portable) mikoshi shrines, each decorated with mirrors and gold, and 12 massive ceremonial torches. Carried from Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine down the old Kumano road to the Hiryu shrine, they are then purified by fire and water. The festival is fantastic, you can feel the spray from the waterfall and you can feel the
heat on your face from the torches - it is usually prudent to keep a safe distance as it is isn't unusual for the fire bearers to lose control and singe a few spectators. Known as the Nachi-no-Hi-
White-robe priests carry 12 enormous torches of cypress wood. These purify the path for the unique mikoshi of Nachi. Usually mikoshi (portable shrines) look like palanquins, but these are 10m (30ft) tall vermilion panels decorated with mirrors and fans (this is also known as Ogi Matsuri, the 'Fan Festival'). In the background are the vermilion pillars of the shrine, and the 133m (436ft) waterfall which first attracted Emperor Jimmu to worship here at the dawn of Japanese civilisation.
Following a sacred ritual in the shrine itself, the mikoshi are carried to the stone steps just under the waterfall, where the torches are lit and the torch-carriers purify them by walking up and down the steps in circles. The purification by fire and smoke is completed by water, in the form of the mist spraying from above. The Kumano mountains have been revered as the site of great mystical power for more than 1000 years. A Buddhist paradise was said to be hidden among the peaks, to be reached in life by the devout worshipper who undertook a pilgrimage to the mountains and prayed at the shrines.