3 fire festivals in Tottori and Shimane you should not miss

In Japan, Tottori and Shimane often get a bad rap. The shinkansen doesn’t go there so they must be pretty backwater places. Au contraire, my friend, au contraire!  There’s always something going on, if you know where to look. Like other prefectures in Japan, Tottori and Shimane have their own quirky light and fire festivals. Here are 3 festivals you should not miss!

Daisen Fire Festivalwww.hotfoottrini.com

 

1. Daisen Natsuyama Festival

Mountain worship is serious business in Japan. Every June, Mount Daisen, Tottori’s most popular hiking destination, hosts the Natsuyama Festival to bless the summer hiking season. During the two-day festival, Shinto priests from Ogamiyama Shrine pray for the safety of the hikers. On the first day, there’s a torch procession from the shrine to the car park. Get there early to snag a good viewing spot. The path will be bumpy and slippery with moss in some places. The stairs leading up to the shrine are also a bit steep. At the shrine, grab a bamboo torch. Then join the procession. It will look like a river of fire coursing down the foot of the mountain. People will be taking selfies so look out for flames coming your way in any direction.matsue

2. Lantern Festival, Matsue Castle

Looking for a more raucous affair? Every autumn, Matsue Castle in Shimane prefecture hosts a taiko festival called Do Gyoretsu and a lantern festival known as Suitouro. The festivals re-enact the celebrations when Princess Iwa-hime of the Japanese Imperial Family came to Matsue to marry Lord Nobuzumi Matsudaira in 1724.  Take a turn hitting the taiko drums on one of many miyazukuri or drum floats. For the lantern festival, participants place paper lanterns on the castle grounds and along the darkened streets and Ohashi river. Spend the evening wading through a sea of lanterns depicting scenes from ancient and contemporary Japan and other parts of the world.

Misasa Fire Festivalwww.hotfoottrini.com

3. Hono no Saiten, Misasa

Feeling particularly brave? In October, head to Sanbutsuji in Misasa. Don a hachimaki headband and walk on freshly-charred logs during the Festival of Flames in central Tottori. Before you get a go, Shugendo priests will stride over the embers in tabi (Japanese socks), rope sandals, or naked soles. Like climbing Mount Mitoku, firewalking is an ancient Shugendo tradition designed to train the spirit and to “ward off evil and invite good fortune.” After you cross the fire, you can chomp on some free, ooey-gooey mochi (rice cake).

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography and Hot Foot Trini

Are you burning to go to these fire festivals? Have you been before? Share your experiences!

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3 top hiking destinations in Tottori prefecture

Tottori prefecture is as inaka as its gets in Japan. Although considered one of the country’s least populated prefectures, nature here is simply stunning. If you’re an outdoors type,  you will surely fall in love with the prefecture’s mountainous landscapes. Here are 3 top hiking destinations in Tottori prefecture.Mount Daisenwww.hotfoottrini.com

1. Mount Daisen

Mount Daisen is the highest peak in the Chugoku region of Japan, at 1709 meters high. The actual highest point of this dormant volcano is Kengamine (1729 meters) but it’s not accessible to the general public. There are many ways to ascend. My favorite is the Motodani trail which starts from the Ogamiyama shrine.

At the 1200 meter mark, the Motodani trail joins the main trail. At the 1600 meter mark, you will reach the rim of the volcano’s crater. From here, the climb gets less steep. At the summit, there’s a wooden boardwalk that hovers over wild alpine brush, protecting it from tramping hiking boots. From the top, there are dizzying views: urban Yonago, green rice fields, and the dusty blue Sea of Japan hugging the curve of the coastline.The descent can be hard on the knees. Many of the steps require full-bodied, giant steps.Mount Mitokuwww.hotfoottrini.com

2. Mount Mitoku

Mount Mitoku is a 900-meter high mountain sacred to Shugendo believers. The mountain climb is deemed spiritual training. There is no gentle ascent of Mitokusan. First, you have to clamber over tough, gnarled roots. Along the climb, you can cling to lianas, holding them like ladder rungs up the mountain. If you are afraid of heights, don’t look down. There are no harnesses or safety nets.

You will encounter many temples along the way: Monjudo, Kannondo, and Nagereido, which is nestled in the cliff face. Nagereido means “throw in temple” or “temple placed by throwing.” Legend states that Shugendo’s founder literally threw the temple into place.Mount Senjouwww.hotfoottrini.com

3. Mount Senjou

If you’re looking for a hike that’s easier on the knees, there’s  Mount Senjou, a 615-meter high mountain in the Daisen-Oki National Park. Like Mount Daisen and Mitokusan, Senjousan is considered sacred to Buddhist mountain ascetics in Tottori prefecture.

Senjousan’s forested plateau rises like a high-top fade. The start of the trail climbs a gentle hill, then enters a forested area. Down a narrow path choked with tall grasses and tree roots is Mount Senjou’s secret.  At the end is a small clearing with a narrow, rocky outcrop. To get to the outcrop, you have to creep along a narrow ridge, with your back to the wall. From here, the views are tremendous: blue sky, a sea of furrows covered in dark green pines and brown scrub, a blue-green lake, and snaking roads below.

Want to read more? Explore the unexplored in Tottori Prefecture.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

Have you ever hiked in Tottori? What places did I miss?

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Spending New Year’s, Japanese style

In Japan, New Year’s is way bigger than Christmas. In fact, no shōgatsu (New Year festival) is complete without a ritual visit to the local jinja (shrine).

Kunito sensei, the school nurse, invites Jesse and I to visit her family jinja. Hiyoshi Shrine in Yodoe claims to be the only shrine in Japan located directly opposite a railroad crossing.

As we cross the wooden train tracks and ascend the stone steps into a forest clearing, it feels as though we have left the wardrobe. Time stands still. Single black lamps dot the snow-blanketed landscape, giving the shrine a distinctly Narnia feel.

The compound is hushed and deeply shadowed by tall evergreens, heavy with recent snowfall. Occasionally, the branches above shudder and giant heaps of snow thud to the ground. The air is clean and cold. Tiny snowflakes hang in the air for seconds, then drift softly to earth. It’s as though we’re trapped in a giant snow globe that someone’s just shaken.Spending New Year's Japanese Stylewww.hotfoottrini.comUsually, when you enter a Japanese shrine, you will notice shishi (lion dogs) or kitsune (foxes). This one is guarded by shishi as well as saru (monkeys), their mossy faces partially hidden by clumps of snow.

The main hall of the shrine is a beautiful wooden structure with crossed beams that stretch up to the heavens. Its architecture strongly resembles that of Izumo Taisha. The interior is dark and spare, save for shinobigoma (straw horse) and a fluttery, paper-covered object. Omikuji fortunes for the new year line taut strings outside the main hall.

There are also miniature shrines scattered everywhere. Each pays homage to a different god or kami. The snow muffles our claps and clinking coins as we bow, shuffle around the shrines, and go up and down the muddied pathways.

Afterward, we head to Amenomanai (which means “heavenly pure water”), a natural spring source in Yodoe. Its water comes straight from Mount Daisen and even though it’s winter, the water is not too cold. Amenomanai is the only place in Tottori prefecture classified under Japan’s 100 remarkable waters. In a small pond near the spring, a  single rainbow trout swims under the snowflakes, nibbling the fish food we offer.

A water wheel stands nearby, covered in moss and snow. For a moment, it looks like the abandoned Arnos Vale water wheel in Tobago. Icicles hang like clear daggers from the thatched roof of a nearby hut. The snow continues to fall softly, bringing a sense of magic to the time and place.

We return to the family home for a traditional New Year’s lunch: sake studded with gold flecks, ozōni, and osechi ryori. Kunito sensei serves two types of ozōni: a sweet one (typical in Yonago) and a savory one (typical in Nanbu). Both include generous helpings of mochi, round rice cakes that are like sticky dumplings. The osechi ryori is served in lacquered boxes and includes neat servings of grilled tai (sea bream), pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes), delicate yellow kazunoko (fish roe), glossy kuromame (black beans), tazukuri (small sardines), and datemaki (egg custard rolls).

The new year already feels different. It’s as though we’ve distilled some intangible essence at Hiyoshi shrine and Amenomanai, something that helps us understand this strange and idiosyncratic place called Japan.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

Did you ever experience New Year’s away from home? How did you feel?

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