All About Japan

Small Island Burns for Japan's Early Days

Festivals Islands Theater Video Oita Kyushu

The island of Onyujima (大入島) carries on a tradition said to date back to the founding of Japan. Located some 700 meters (0.4 mi) off the east coast of Oita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, this small island is just 17 kilometers (10.6 mi) in circumference, and has a population of about 800 people.

Here the Tondo Fire Festival (トンド火祭り・Tondo Himatsuri) is held in January to pray for good health in the coming year. The festival gets its name from a 10-meter (33 ft) pine and bamboo pillar called a tondo, which is set alight along with the townspeople's New Year's decorations, such as shimekazari straw cords and kadomatsu doorway decorations made of pine and bamboo. It's also traditional to burn any protective charms purchased during the year in thanks for the protection they have provided.

Traditionally held on the night of January 14 or the morning of January 15, many regions of Japan have tondo festivals, which may variously be called dondo, donto, dondon or saito (many are now held on the second Sunday or Monday in January). The festival on Onyujima is said to trace its origins all the way back to the legendary first emperor of Japan.

It's said that Emperor Jimmu stopped on this island as he ventured east to conquer mainland Japan. He struck his bow into the ground to create the wellspring known as Kami-no-I (神の井, The Well of the Gods), and lit a bonfire to pray for his safe voyage. Today, a ceremonial torch is carried from the well to the grounds of Onyujima Junior High School to start the festival.

As can be seen in the documentary above, directed, filmed and edited by Dean Nuely Rondario, the bonfire is preceded by a performance of kagura, a masked Shinto dance that also traces its origins back to the first legends of Japan. As the fire burns out, townspeople take unburned pieces of pine home as charms—though not before the event concludes with fireworks!

- (Japanese)