Towering Infernos

What: Taimatsu Akashi (AKA the Sukagawa fire festival)
Where: Sukagawa city, starting at Taimatsu Doori
When: Saturday 14th November. Parade starts 2pm. Torch lighting at 6:30pm
Why: Because everyone likes fire

Lovingly known by most of us in the prefecture as ‘the Sukagawa fire festival’, Taimatsu Akashi is the best thing you’ll see or do this November. Back in 2006, I had the privilege of helping to carry of one of the giant torches through the streets of Sukagawa and up to the main festival site. It rained. My shoulders hurt and it got cold. But without a doubt, this festival easily ranks in my top five ‘wholesome things I’ve done in Japan’ since my arrival here. Whether it rains, snows or blows a gale on the day of Taimatsu Akashi, the day always ends white-hot; giant columns burn, bend and crumble; thousands of people huddle together in awe, their faces smiling and warmed by the incredible display a few metres in front of them; people gasp and cheer loudly as the torches slowly come down in giant piles of hot ash. Like most November mornings, though, the morning of Taimatsu Akashi usually starts off cold…
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In one of Sukagawa city’s main streets, crowds gather. Locals, foreigners and tiny kids dressed as samurai (but with sensible, clear-plastic rain jackets) stand around, chatting, pink-cheeked in the November air. Somewhere on each person’s clothing, the characters 松明あかし are written on a headband; on a small block of wood hanging from a ribbon with a bell; printed boldly on a t-shirt. Everyone’s getting excited. They got up early with one thing in mind-carry something big, stand it upright and set fire to it.

Lying in the middle of the street, each easily one lane wide, two straw-packed, kanji-decorated, sack-cloth-wrapped monolithic torches lie, waiting to be lifted a couple of feet from the ground and carried- slowly- through the streets to the festival ground, the former site of Sukagawa castle. Standing at the end of one of the torches to have my photo taken, at 185cm tall, my head was barely level with the top edge of the torch. These things are huge. And heavy.

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A small man wearing a bandana and ninja-esque clothing was hoisted onto the top side of the first torch. Someone threw him a mega-phone. A few minutes later, a 30-strong team of locals and foreigners (each having downed a shot or two of warm sake for courage, warmth and strength) were in place on either side of the torch gripping long, sturdy wooden poles and bending at the knees. The guy with the megaphone shouts and everyone takes a deep breath in. Another shout, a collective groan and the torch- megaphone man and all- is lifted off the ground, up to chest height, and finally rested (for want of a less painful-sounding word) on our shoulders. There’s a moment’s pause, and then we march.

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Whether you take part in carrying the torches, watch the whole process from start to finish or just go along in the evening to see the terrific display of flames, 松明あかし (literally ‘torch’ and ‘flame / light’), along with Sukagawa’s fantastic summer firework festival is something that should be on every JET’s yearly schedule. Situated between Koriyama and Shirakawa, Sukagawa is easily accessible by car (via route 4) or train (JR Tohoku main-line) and, although it’s quite walkable from the station, free buses run from near the station to the main festival site. Torch-carrying begins in the early afternoon, with all carriers donning happi-style clothes, headbands and traffic-director-style white gloves, and the whole process or carrying, dropping, positioning, hoisting and securing the torches (of which there are many, but only two are paraded through the streets on the day) takes several hours. Local school kids also take part in the parade, and the ‘balls of fire’ that are used to light the torches are carried through the streets to the awaiting torches just after the sun goes down. By 6:30, thousands of people have gathered, bought festival food and drinks from the many street vendors and walked up the hill to encircle the tens of giant torches, waiting to see them burn.

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The festival commemorates the burning of Sukagawa castle and the city’s efforts to fight off the warring Date Masamune over 400 years ago. The parade is great fun and the final lighting of the torches is a genuinely spectacular sight. Anyone can join the parade (by purchasing a mini torch for around 500yen), but each year, Sukagawa city welcomes volunteers- particularly us fit, energetic foreigners- to help carry the torches through the streets to the main site. You can currently apply online via this website
or contact one of our own friendly Sukagawa ALTs for more information, but be quick because both time and spaces are running out. Go along and take part or stand on the side-lines, take spectacular photos and eat great food; either way, you get to watch big things burn and you’re guaranteed a great day.

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