Rites of the Firewalkers of Japan - W. C. Jameson Reid
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
From An illustrated article entitled Rites of the Firewalking Fanatics of Japan, by W. C. Jameson Reid, in the Chicago Sunday Inter-Ocean of September 27th, 1903
The "Hi-Wattarai" is a Shintoist ceremony involving walking over hot coals. …. If you ever are in Tokio, and can find a few minutes to spare, by all means do not neglect witnessing at least one performance of 'Hi-Wattarai', for, if you are of that incredulous nature which laughs with scorn at so-called Eastern mysticism, you will come away, as has many a visitor before you, with an impression sufficient to last through an ordinary lifetime. If you do not come away convinced that you have been witness of a spectacle which makes you disbelieve the evidence of your own eyes and your most matter-of-fact judgment, then you are a man of stone.….. formerly this rite was performed only in the spring and fall, when the native worshipers brought gifts of wine, large trays of fish, fruit, rice cakes, loaves, vegetables, and candies……for days beforehand the priests connected with the temple devote themselves to fasting and prayer to prepare for the ordeal. . . .
The performance itself usually takes place in the late afternoon during twilight in the temple court, the preceding three hours being spent by the priests in final outbursts of prayer before the unveiled altar in the inner sanctuary of the little matted temple, and during these invocations no visitors are allowed to enter the sacred precincts.
Shortly before 5 o'clock the priests filed from before the altar into some interior apartments, where they were to change their beautiful robes for the coarser dress worn during the fire walking. In the meantime coolies had been set to work in the courtyard to ignite the great bed of charcoal, which had already been laid. The dimensions of this bed were about twelve feet by four, and, perhaps, a foot deep. On the top was a quantity of straw and kindling wood, which was lighted, and soon burst into a roaring blaze. The charcoal became more and more thoroughly ignited until the whole mass glowed in the uncertain gloom, like some gigantic and demoniacal eye of a modern Prometheus. As soon as the mass of charcoal was thoroughly ignited from top to bottom, a small gong in the temple gave notice that the wonderful spectacle of 'Hi-Wattarai' was about to begin.
Soon two of the priests came out, said prayers of almost interminable length at a tiny shrine in the corner of the enclosure, and turned their attention to the fire. Taking long poles and fans from the coolies, they poked and encouraged the blaze till it could plainly be seen that the coal was ignited throughout. The whole bed was a glowing mass, and the heat which rose from it was so intense that we found it uncomfortable to sit fifteen feet away from it without screening our faces with fans. Then they began to pound it down more solidly along the middle; as far as possible inequalities in its surface were beaten down, and the coals which protruded were brushed aside…………..
One of the priests held a pile of white powder on a small wooden stand. This was said to be salt—which in Japan is credited with great cleansing properties—but as far as could be ascertained by superficial examination it was a mixture of alum and salt. He stood at one end of the fire-bed and poised the wooden tray over his head, and then sprinkled a handful of it on the ground before the glowing bed of coals. At the same time another priest who stood by him chanted a weird recitative of invocation and struck sparks from flint and steel which he held in his hands. This same process was repeated by both the priests at the other end, at the two sides, and at the corners.
Ten minutes, more or less, was spent in various movements and incantations about the bed of coals. At the end of that time two small pieces of wet matting were brought out and placed at either end and a quantity of the white mixture was placed upon them. At a signal from the head priest, who acted as master of ceremonies during the curious succeeding function, the ascetics who were to perform the first exhibition of fire-walking gathered at one end of the bed of coals, which by this time was a fierce and glowing furnace.
Having raised both his hands and prostrated himself to render thanks to the god who had taken out the 'soul' of the fire, the priest about to undergo the ordeal stood upon the wet matting, wiped his feet lightly in the white mixture, and while we held our breaths, and our eyes almost leaped from their sockets in awe-struck astonishment, he walked over the glowing mass as unconcernedly as if treading on a carpet in a drawing-room, his feet coming in contact with the white hot coals at every step. He did not hurry or take long steps, but sauntered along with almost incredible sang-froid, and before he reached the opposite side he turned around and sauntered as carelessly back to the mat from which he had started.
[The story goes on to tell how the performance was repeated by the other priests, and then by many of the native audience; but none of the Europeans tried it, although invited to do so.