Photo/IllutrationParticipants in ritual attire surround the torii gate of Kamikurajinja shrine in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, on the evening on Feb. 6. (Kazushige Kobayashi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

SHINGU, Wakayama Prefecture--It looked like a sea of fire as almost 1,700 men bearing flaming torches raced down the time-honored steps of Kamikurajinja shrine on the night of Feb. 6 in a ritual of the Oto Matsuri festival.

The stunning spectacle and the daredevils who take part in it are immortalized in the local traditional song “Shingu Bushi” with the lyrics, “On the mountain are falls of fire. They are descending dragons.”

Earlier that evening, the men, clad in ritual white robes tied at the waist with thick straw ropes, endured a harsh climb up 538 steps of the stone stairway, the root of Shingu's famed Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine.

As they reached their goal at the top, the sacred Gotobiki-iwa rock, an object of worship at the mountainside shrine, the group surrounded it and set their torches ablaze.

When the shrine gate opened at 8 p.m., they turned and tore back down the steps, producing an unbroken stream of fire as they made their descent past spectators.

The fire festival was designated as an important intangible folk cultural property by the government in 2016 in recognition of its part in preserving nature worship and primitive religion.