Equinox, ancestor, and nature
The sun rises due east and sets due west twice a year – at the vernal and spring equinox. Buddhists have considered that on these two days, the distance between heaven, where ancestors are in, and this world becomes closest because another world is thought be located due west. Based on this idea, a Japanese custom, that asks for a monk to chant a Buddhist mantra and visit and clean up family graves to worship ancestors for a week centering around the spring and autumn equinox, was born. Besides, since the length of the day becomes longer from spring equinox, the day (around 21th March) is known as the beginning of the spring. On that day, Japanese have prayed for a good harvest of the year. Because of this tradition that shows gratitude for nature and ancestors, the spring equinox is now a national holiday in Japan.
Kamikoani village is a small community whose population is under 3000. In that village, a bonfire-like event is held every night of the spring equinox to welcome ancestors. Giant words created of fire, called “Matobi,” are lit on burial grounds, rice fields, hills, and dry riverbeds surrounding the village, and cast a dreamy light on this mountainous region with unmelted snow.
“Matobi” are formed by burning out “Danpo,” rags which are wrapped by wires and put in an iron frame. Kerosene is poured on Danpo when it starts burning. To prevent Danpo from collapsing, the wires are tied up as strong as possible. How well the design of each fire word is arranged, whether it be by the length of wires or the interval between Danpo, is a task for the villagers. Danpo was made by each house in the past, and at the present, it is created by 16 communities inside Kamikoani village. Each community makes at least 200. As the sun goes down, the fire is set onto the Danpo, and the fire words—usually consisting of several Kanji, the name of communities, the name of the era, and so on—emerge in the darkness.
The origin of “Matobi” event dates back to the 8th c. At that time, people began taking fire to cemeteries so that their ancestors could find their graves even in this snowy area where graves are totally covered by heavy snow. The fire was originally set by burning out straws or torches in front of graves. The fire-burning tradition has changed its form, material, and scale as time has passed. At the present, “Matobi” is lit for 1 hour and half by each community. Fire starts igniting one after another so that people can see different communities’ fire in order.
In 2005, “Matobi” became resigned as a national intangible folk asset because of its value that hands down local tradition. However, severe depopulation makes it difficult to hand down the tradition to the next generation. In the past, the event was organized mainly by elementary school children but now, each villagers’ assembly takes central role.
From the scenery of over a hundred fires with the remnants of spring snow, you can feel the spirit of the Kamikoani villagers that manage to preserve tradition and cooperation within the communities.