“Move towards Tokyo!” “Bring it back to Sendai!” These kinds of mysterious calls, as well as references to Niigata and Iwaki, can be heard at the annual Taimatsu Akashi festival held in Sukagawa City, Fukushima Prefecture.
Taimatsu Akashi is one of Japan’s three big fire festivals and is held every year on the second Saturday of November. It began some 420 years ago in 1589, held to mourn and express gratitude to those lost in the battle brought to the town by feudal lord Masamune Date. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March last year, the festival now remembers those lost on that day as well – people from Fukushima, the Tohoku region, and nationwide.
This year about 24 taimatsu or giant torches are being built for the festival, the largest of which is 10 meters high, has a diameter of two meters and weighs three tons. Takanori Sato, head of a volunteer group called “Taimatsu wo moritateru kai” which helps with the building of the taimatsu and the day’s proceedings, says that the attraction of the festival is the role people play in it – people make the taimatsu, carry them through the city and then set them alight.
The circular frame of the taimatsu is made of bamboo and the inside is stuffed with large amounts of grass called kaya. On the day of the festival the taimatsu are carried through the city in a fashion similar to carrying a mikoshi or portable shrine. More than 150 men are needed to carry the largest taimatsu.
After parading the taimatsu through the town, participants head to Mt Goro and stand them up by hand, assisted by ladders and ropes.
Carrying and putting up the 3 ton daitaimatsu by hand means that one small mistake can lead to accident or injury. Instructions need to be accurate and everyone has to move in the same direction.
The four places mentioned at the beginning are used in the instructions. From Sukagawa City, Sendai is to the north, Tokyo to the south, and Iwaki and Niigata are to the east and west respectively. Locals say that these place names are instinctively easier to understand rather than the bearings of north, south etc.
All of the taimatsu are erected by dusk, and they stand mystically in the night. A torch set alight at Nikaido Shrine where Sukagawa Castle once sat is brought to the scene and a man climbs up the largest taimatsu, unaided by a ladder, to set the top on fire. The other taimatsu are also set alight and the resulting grand scene attracts people from all over Japan.
Taimatsu Akashi will be held this year on Saturday. Festivities begin in the afternoon and the taimatsu will be set on fire from 6.30pm. More details (in Japanese) can be found at the following Sukagawa City website.© Rising Tohoku