Dondo Yaki – Japanese Festival of Fire

Dondo Yaki is a Japanese traditional festival that I had the chance to observe for the first time earlier this month during my trip to Japan. It is related to the festivities surrounding the New Year, so to understand it I will have to provide more information about how the Near Year’s celebrations work in Japan.

Interestingly, the Japanese celebrate Christmas, though the number of Christians in the country is quite small. Unlike the Western countries, where Christmas is pushed away in order not to offend Muslims, atheists or other similar whiny groups, that holiday is big in Japan even though it is not official. There are Christmas decorations everywhere and people exchange gifts, but Christmas is not spiritual. I suspect that it was implanted and popularized by retail companies as another opportunity to sell goods.

The real celebration that reflects the ancient spiritual traditions revolves around the New Year. It is much less flamboyant than the Japanese Christmas and its focus is the family. The coming year is seen as a new beginning and all festivities are focused on the idea of a fresh start in the family, the company or any other group to which individuals belong.

In the weeks before the end of the year companies, institutions and friends hold “bonenkai” parties. Bonenkai means literally “year forgetting” and the event symbolizes the parting with the past, especially with everything bad that happened in the current year, and affirming the hope for the new year. Last December I attended the bonenkai party of a conservative TV channel in Tokyo, which was organized to coincide with Emperor’s Birthday, an official holiday (I’ll write about it later). As it is customary, there was a lot of food and drinks and everybody had a good time.

Interestingly, the Japanese celebrate Christmas, though the number of Christians in the country is quite small. Unlike the Western countries, where Christmas is pushed away in order not to offend Muslims, atheists or other similar whiny groups, that holiday is big in Japan even though it is not official. There are Christmas decorations everywhere and people exchange gifts, but Christmas is not spiritual. I suspect that it was implanted and popularized by retail companies as another opportunity to sell goods.

The real celebration that reflects the ancient spiritual traditions revolves around the New Year. It is much less flamboyant than the Japanese Christmas and its focus is the family. The coming year is seen as a new beginning and all festivities are focused on the idea of a fresh start in the family, the company or any other group to which individuals belong.

In the weeks before the end of the year companies, institutions and friends hold “bonenkai” parties. Bonenkai means literally “year forgetting” and the event symbolizes the parting with the past, especially with everything bad that happened in the current year, and affirming the hope for the new year. Last December I attended the bonenkai party of a conservative TV channel in Tokyo, which was organized to coincide with Emperor’s Birthday, an official holiday (I’ll write about it later). As it is customary, there was a lot of food and drinks and everybody had a good time.

Once the festivities are over, the mochi is eaten and the paper decorations taken down. They are not kept for the next year, but burned in a special ritual called Dondo Yaki. It is a local event involving the whole village or neighbourhood, where the communities build large bonfires. The event is held on January 15. This year I had the chance to see two such events in the prefecture of Ibaraki (not far from Tokyo). The pictures show both, but in the movie you can see the second one.

Now, unlike in old Japan, the event is monitored by firefighters and a fire track is parked nearby to be ready if anything happens. The bonfire is built from hay and light wood in a conic shape with an empty space in the middle. That’s were they place cardboard boxes with New Year’s decorations.

You will see in the video that before the start the people in charge give away a lot of candy and other snacks, which theoretically are only for the children, but everybody else tries to grab some of them as well. The loud voice yelling in the movie announces the names of the individuals and companies that donated the food.

The next step is the lighting of the fire – many people approach the bonfire from several directions to light it. The fire starts quickly and the flames fly high.  Once the most of the bonfire is gone, people are approaching it again. This time they carry long sticks with pieces of mochi attached to the end. They roast the mochi on the embers (that’s quite similar to the marshmallows roasted on camp fire in the West). During the event people wish each other good health and success in the new year.

Here are a few pictures from the first event, which took place in the late afternoon:

dondo-yaki-japan-2016-1-1

The bonfire

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Bags and boxes with New Year’s decorations are placed inside

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Starting the fire

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The flames

The second event we attended happened later that night, so it was already dark:

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Preparing for the event

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The burning bonfire

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Everybody is holding a stick with mochi

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Burning the sticks

© 2016 Blogwrath.com

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2 Comments

  1. The Lone Ranger says:

    Welcome back, Admiwrath. I was in TO last Christmas, so it was a pity we couldn’t have met up.

    1. admiwrath says:

      Sorry for missing the opportunity. I was very busy last month and I am behind in posting.

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