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Edo-style ladder-top acrobatics at Ikegami Honmonji

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By Vicki L Beyer

An acrobat twisting and turning atop a handmade bamboo ladder held vertical only by the acrobat's colleagues at its base. It's a breathtaking spectacle, and a centuries-old Japanese tradition with its roots in firefighting. You can see it performed this Monday afternoon at Tokyo's Ikegami Honmonji temple.

Old Edo (the forerunner of modern Tokyo) was a firetrap. Most of the city was comprised of one and two-story wooden structures, built cheek-by-jowl with the neighbors. In Edo, cooking, lighting and heating were all accomplished with open fires or coals in containers that were easily upended, resulting in house fires.

If a house caught fire, it was highly likely that the fire would spread to neighboring structures. Entire neighborhoods could easily be consumed, at great cost to lives and property. Such fires were so common that they came to be known as “the flowers of Edo”. Little wonder that operating a fire brigade was a lucrative business. When the cry of “kaji” (fire!) went up, firefighters would rush to the site of the conflagration to extinguish the fire and prevent its spread.

But in crowded Edo, with its narrow, twisted alleyways, finding the fire wasn’t always easy. The most reliable method was for the fire brigade to raise a ladder which one firefighter would climb, giving him a bird’s eye view of the area and allowing him to identify the location of the fire. He would then signal to his colleagues below, indicating the location of the fire and how to get there.

Firespotting and signalling involved contortions that evolved into an acrobatic art form surviving today as "hashigo-nori" -- acrobatics performed atop a bamboo ladder.

Ikegami Honmonji is hosting a demonstration of" hashigo-nori" on Monday from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the temple courtyard. The size and shape of this venue makes it possible to get in close to the performers, something that is not always possible with "hashigo-nori" performances.

Admission is free. Various poses will be performed, sometimes solo and sometimes with 2, 3 or even 4 acrobats atop the ladder. Announcements and explanations will be made in both Japanese and English and at the end of the performance, members of the audience will be invited to attempt some of the acrobatics on a “mini” ladder. This is truly a rare opportunity.

Ikegami Honmonji is less than a 10-minute walk from Ikegami Station on the Tokyu Ikegami line.

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