On Friday 15th July, I and 2 friends headed down to Wakayama Prefecture for a long-weekend of travelling. The first stop was Nachi Falls, where every year there is a giant fire festival to purify the waterfall – Japan’s highest, at 130m.
After a bit of googling in Japanese, we found out that the purification ceremony began at 10am, and the actual fire festival began just after 2pm, so we left Kumano – where we’d made a pit stop for the night because 6 hours driving first thing in the morning was to be honest too much for me – around 8.30, and arrived at the falls just before 11am.
We managed to park in last spot in the parking lot before the waterfall, and headed over towards the entrance. There was a large stall with a load of information about the festival, so we picked up a few leaflets and headed down all of the stairs to the waterfall.
The waterfall was stunning from the base, but we also paid the ¥300 to go further up, and take more photos.
It was now about 11.30, and there were a lot of people around. As the stairs are off-limits during the festival, everyone has to sit/stand along the side and watch from there – which had worried me until we got there and I saw that where the viewing area was there was a steep-ish slope, carved out into zig-zagging paths which led up, giving pretty much anyone a decent view. But as it was getting pretty busy already, we had to decide whether or not to risk coming back to find all the good spots gone. It was also raining and a bit miserable, so the guys decided they’d find a good spot and go wait while I got a tarp from the car to sit on.
I also headed up to the Grand Shrine while I had time, it was still pouring which made the walk uphill a little bit miserable, and by the time I got to the top I was starving and exhausted, so I only stayed for about 5 minutes to watch some of the dances that were happening, which were stunning, but my stomach won over and I headed back down to our spot and sat while the boys went up to the shrine.
Around 2pm, the festival began, with men carrying giant torches down from the Grand Shrine, and lighting them and walking around after a Priest had purified the area and prayed to the gods.
They then lit the huge torches and carried them up and down the stairs. There were fellow men spraying water from their mouths onto the flames to prevent them from coming down too far and setting the torch-holder alight. The heat was no joke either, even standing over a good 10 metres away, I could feel the warmth on my face.
Once the area had been purified, and was full of a nice-smelling smoke from the flames, more men carried the mikoshi, or portable shrines, down to the waterfall. Each one was huge, about 4 times my own height, and apparently weigh up to 50kg!
The mikoshi are placed in front of the waterfall, each individual god held in them carried back to the falls. Later, they would be taken back up to the shrine with another ceremony to announce that the deities had made it safely home.
We didn’t stay too long after that, as it was still raining on and off, and we had a good hour plus drive to our accommodation. We stayed a cute guesthouse called wagaranchi in Kumano, in Mie Prefecture. It was lovely (and cheap), and the owner was really helpful. We found an Italian for dinner (both guys were vegetarian, leading to a lack of other viable options) and then headed to the local izakaya, called rakko, which had been recommended to us. The food there was amazing, as was the home-made umeshu, but the mother of the owner really made it, singing us a song before we left – she was over 80 but had a better pair of lungs than me for sure. If anyone ever is in the Kumano area – which apparently is crazy famous for its amazing fireworks over Obon – I’d definitely recommend the guesthouse for somewhere to stay, and Rakko for all of your evening food & booze needs.