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February 25, 2020

The Godan Goma fire ceremony at Oyamadera Temple

by Alice Gordenker

Japan-Insights Expert Alice Gordenker sent us this report about a very special and important Buddhist ceremony, the Godan Goma fire ceremony, which is performed on just one day a year at the Oyamadera Temple on Mt. Oyama in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture. During the Edo period, this ancient Buddhist temple was one of the most important destinations on the very popular pilgrimage to Mt. Oyama, which Ms. Gordenker wrote about in detail at Japan-Insights.jp

Alice Gordenker
I've lived in Japan for over twenty years but one of the most unique and exciting experiences I have had here was participating in the Godan Goma fire ceremony at Oyamadera Temple. The temple is located in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, easily reachable by public transportation.
Getting there from Tokyo took me just 90 minutes yet I felt like I had been transported to another world.

The next Godan Goma fire ceremony at Oyamadera is coming up very soon, on Friday, February 28, 2020.
There is still time to plan a visit and experience it for yourself!

The Godan Goma fire ceremony at Oyamadera Temple

When the ceremony began, I was seated on the floor inside the huge dark temple, packed in tight with perhaps a hundred worshippers holding rosaries and whispering prayers. A line of priests, with shaved heads and dressed in splendid purple and gold robes, filed in silently before the hushed assembly and seated themselves cross-legged in front of altars.

The boom of a taiko drum announced the start of the ceremony, followed by gongs and eerie blasts on a horn fashioned from a conch shell. A sacred flame was carried in to light each of the five altars, and soon the priests began chanting in unison, never ceasing in their prayers as they fed neatly shaped sticks and mysterious herbs and powders into their fire. For a full hour, I sat mesmerized by the sounds and sights as flames leapt towards the ceiling and incense-laden smoke swirled around us.

The fire ceremony at Oyamadera is unusual in that involves multiple altars

This was a Goma ritual of consecrated fire, a tradition unique to the Esoteric Buddhism that came to Japan from India via China during the Heian period (794-1185). In Japan today, the Goma ritual is practiced only by temples of the Shingon sect, and may be performed for the benefit of individuals, the state or all sentient beings. The deity invoked is most often the wrathful god Acala, one of the Wisdom Kings, who is known in Japan as Fudo Myo-o. The consecrated fire is believed to convey special protections, and to cleanse the spirit and heart.
At Oyamadera, a Shingon temple said to have been founded in 755 by the famous Buddhist priest Roben, the ritual is held on just one day a year. That day is always February 28.

Oyamadera houses this 13th c. image of Fudo Myo-o, Courtesy of Oyamadera Temple

I have experienced Goma ceremonies in other Shingon temples, including the Narita-san Fukagawa Fudo-do temple in Tokyo’s Koto ward, where the ritual is performed five times every day – at 09:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00, and 17:00, plus 19:00 on the 1st, 15th, and 28th of each month. This is a good entry experience as anyone can enter and there is no cost to sit and observe. Those who wish to have their wallets, purses or other personal belongings passed through the smoke from the fire, which is believed to convey protection and good fortune, should register in advance with the temple office and pay the required fee.

I have also experienced a Goma fire ceremony inside a very old and unusual cliff temple in Tottori Prefecture, the Nageire-do in the town of Wakasa. This temple dates back more than a thousand years and is a nationally designated Important Cultural Property, yet the use of fire is permitted because the ritual is still considered to be important enough to warrant the risk to the building. Both of my previous experiences with the Goma fire ceremony were very interesting and indeed profound, but the Godan Goma at Oyamadera is even more impressive because it involves not one but five altars, all burning at once. Godan means five altars.
At Oyamadera, the ritual is performed primarily for the benefit of the state, a grave responsibility that demands the greater fire power of five altars rather than the usual one, and the attendance and assistance of high-ranking priests from other temples.

Oyamadera is a temple of the Shingon sect, founded in the 8th century

The Goma fire ritual’s unique combination of visuals and sounds can be deeply moving and may well transport you into a trance-like state. It is also interesting to observe the worshippers and see how the ritual figures in their personal spiritual beliefs. Many of the people I was sitting with had brought heat-proof containers with them, some as simple as a metal tea canister with a towel wrapped around it. At the end of the ceremony, when worshippers were allowed to file through the temple to pray before the main image of Fudo Myo-o, those with containers received a portion of the hot ashes from the altars. When I asked the couple in front of me what they would do with the ashes, they said they would sprinkle them around the perimeter of their home for protection from illness and misfortune. They had driven a considerable distance from a neighboring prefecture to attend the Godan Goma at Oyamadera, and said they try to come every year.

Priests tending the sacred fires. The ashes are believed to offer protections

The Godan Goma fire ritual at Oyamadera is held only on February 28, once at 11 am and again at 2 pm. Each ceremony lasts about an hour. This is not at all a tourist event and is attended almost exclusively by devout worshippers. You may be able to catch of glimpse of the proceedings from the temple entrance, but if you wish to be admitted into the main hall so you can be close to the altars and get the full effect of the ritual, you should be prepared to make a donation to the temple. The suggested minimum per party seems to be 5,000 yen, for which you will receive a wooden votive board – kifuda – that conveys protections to the holder. If you bring a container, you can also receive some of the ashes. Be sure to have protection for your hands as the ashes will still be hot.

To visit Oyamadera, start from Isehara station on the Odawara Odakyu train line – approximately 1 hour from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station.
When you exit the ticket gate, turn right for the North Exit, where there is a tourist information office with maps and brochures in English located halfway down the stairs.
Continue to the bottom of the stairs for bus stop #4, where you can board a bus bound for the cable car station.
Buses run approximately every 20 minutes, more on weekends. Ride the bus to the end, which takes about 25 minutes on weekdays. From the bus stop, walk uphill for 500 meters or approximately 15 minutes along the Koma Sando shopping street to the cable car. The ride to Oyamadera station takes 3 minutes.
If you have time and energy, or want a more authentic experience, you can skip the cable car and instead hike from the top of the Koma Sando along wooded paths used for countless centuries by the many pilgrims who visited the mountain. Allow 20-30 minutes to reach the temple.

© all photos courtesy of Isehara Board of Education unless otherwise indicated

Learn more about Mt. Oyama by reading Alice Gordenker's article about the Mt. Oyama Pilgrimage at Japan-Insights.jp!