Fire-walking. Besides the superstitious notions already mentioned in the Articles on Demoniacal Possession and Divination, there are yet others which lead to acts of a most surprising character, to nothing less indeed than treading barefoot over live coals, dashing boiling water about the person, and climbing ladders of naked swords set edge upwards. All these ancient rites (for they descend from a remote antiquity) may still be witnessed in the heart of modern Tōkyō, at least twice every year. The fire-walking usually takes place in the courtyard of the little temple of Ontake at the foot of the Kudan hill in April and September, and the manner of its performance is as follows.
Straw mats are placed upon the ground, and on them a layer of sand. On the top of this the fuel is laid, originally pine-wood, but now charcoal. The bed is about 1 foot deep, from 12 to 18 ft. long, and from 3 to 6 ft. wide. It should be square to the points of the compass. Eight bamboos, with the fronds still on them, are stuck into the ground on the four sides of the charcoal bed, connected by a hempen rope, which is hung from frond to frond, about 5 ft. from the ground. From this hang forty-four of the sacred emblems called gohei,— strips of white paper cut into little angular bunches. Some of the attendants busily fan the flames with open fans strapped to the ends of long poles, while others pound the coals flat with staves. Then incantations are made,—incantations to the God of Water, who dwells in the moon, to descend and drive out the God of Fire. Prayers are offered up, and first one priest, then another begins slowly and solemnly to march round the charcoal bed, cabalistically twisting and flinging out his fingers the while. Soon all are engaged in this act of exorcism. On and on, round and round, do they march, each seemingly oblivious of the others, each gradually working himself up into a state akin to ecstasy. When this apparently interminable ceremony comes to an end, each priest takes a handful of salt from a large bowl, and strews it upon the living coal. Furthermore, a mat at either end of the bed of coals is spread with salt for those who are about to cross the fire to rub their feet on. The high priest salts his feet first, then steps boldly on to the surface of the burning floor, over which he strides with dignified gait. The attendant priests clad in white follow his example, and when all have gone over, all go over again.
The second part of the function, though less impressive, is more amusing; for now from among the crowd of bystanders all such as, to quote Mr. Lowell's phrase, have a mind to try their foot at it, imitate the priests and cross the hot crust. Men, women, and children, old and young, a whole family perhaps in due order of precedence, venture successfully along the line, though not a few show by their rapid skips towards the end that the trial is no mockery.
It should be added, for the sake of complete truthfulness, that the ordeal, when seen, is somehow less impressive than would probably be imagined from a written description. The space is narrow, the crowd motley and irreverent, and mostly of the lower class,—loungers, dirty children with others on their backs. The preliminary beating and pounding of the fire-bed seems endless; the fanning of it drives smoke into one's eves and flakes on to one's clothes. The heat, too, is of course unpleasant, and the actual fire-walking, when at length it does begin, occupies but a few brief moments. Be it understood that our object is nowise to deter any one from witnessing what, after all, is a curious spectacle, but simply to warn him that, like other genuine curios, it must be paid for. A similar remark applies even more strongly to the "Ordeal by Boiling Water." Far better read Mr. Lowell's account, which is very graphic and entertaining, than devote hours to seeing the rite itself, which is deadly dull, consisting, as it does, in the dipping of bamboo fronds into boiling water, brandishing them in the air, and letting the spray fall in a shower over the performer's body, while prayers, incantations, and gyrations are kept up ad infinitum.
The preceding article had just been written when, in September, 1900, it being reported that no less than seven foreigners had taken part in the "miracle," we wrote to one of them, Prof. Percy Hillhouse, of the Imperial University, Tōkyō, to request an account of the proceedings. That gentleman's reply was as follows:—
"I went to the Imagawa Kōji temple on the 17th September, with a secret desire to cross the glowing coals myself; but though I saw all sorts and conditions of Japanese crossing, I was unable to screw up my courage quite to the sticking point until a number of Harvard graduates, who had carefully examined the soles of those who had crossed, themselves walked over. I at once took off my socks, and pushed my way through the crowd to the end of the bed of charcoal. There was a flattened heap of salt at the beginning of the path; and after rubbing both feet well into this, I stepped across at a sharp walking pace and got to the other end safely. Before I started, a priest dusted me all over with a large mop of gohei; and after I had crossed, the priest at the other end made me stop and rub my feet in the pad of salt at the end of the fiery path. No sooner was I safely over than I crossed again with no evil result. As each foot touched the charcoal, it only felt a comfortable warmth: there was no hot sensation at all. I am certain that anybody could go over without any unpleasant effects, if he stepped quickly enough and did not scrape his feet in any way. One must step cleanly, so to speak.
"H——, of the British Consulate in Yokohama, followed me the first time, and later on a young lady from Yokohama picked up her skirts and skipped over amid cheers from the crowd. H—— said that he felt his feet a little sore after he had come off. The first time I went, I did not feel the least bad effect. The second time, some one in front having delayed me a moment by stopping on the salt patch at the end, I felt one foot slightly hot, and for about an hour afterwards a small patch of skin at one side felt very slightly sore; but when I examined my feet at night, I could see nothing, and the feeling of soreness was gone.
"I am not physiologist enough to give any explanation as to why we were not burnt. When a boy, I placed an iron kettle of boiling water, just off the fire, on the palm of my hand, and held it there for fifteen seconds or so, and it only felt slightly warm. I think the explanation of that was that the soot on the bottom was a good non-conductor, and that the moisture of the hand, quickly evaporating, formed a layer of steam which prevented actual contact of the metal and skin. The Kudan 'miracle' may have a similar explanation. The surface of the charcoal-bed was at least half-black, not red-hot, and the damp salt may have provided the necessary moisture."
- This account is condensed by permission from Mr. Percival Lowell's curious book, Occult Japan.