While I missed the bulk of the New Years celebrations this year, thanks to a timely announcement from my good friend and comrade-in-travel Excursions Japan, I attended my first ever hashigo-nori performance at Tokyo’s Ikegami Honmonji Temple.
Hashigo-nori is essentially a series of acrobatic contortions performed at the top of a 6-meter high bamboo ladder. The actions have their roots in the fire brigades of old Edo, when volunteer firefighters would scale similar ladders in the attempt to spot the blazes that were common in the city’s one and two story wooden buildings. Their creative attempts at signaling to their colleagues below forms the backbone of today’s hashigo-nori performances.
Some of you may also have seen these performances labeled as dezome-shiki. So what’s the difference between dezome-shiki and hashigo-nori? From my understanding, dezome-shiki is the larger celebration of firefighters, and might include parades, fire truck demonstrations, the singing of kiyari songs (tunes that grew out of the chants used by firefighters on the job) and of course, hashigo-nori.
The event at Ikegami Honmonji focuses almost solely on hashigo-nori, although the demonstrations don’t begin until the participants have received a blessing from the temple.
After that, a small group processes in with matoi, large standards that would have been used to signal fellow fire fighters during a blaze.
Finally, the main event commences. A ladder is raised and a half dozen or so participants stand below, using ropes to secure and balance it. One by one, each member of the team ascends the ladder and shows off their acrobatic skills.
At the end of the event, the crowd is invited to try their own hand at scaling a smaller version of the ladder and posing for photos. They keep the opportunity open for at least 30 minutes, and anyone – of any age – is welcome to try.
For a better understanding of what hashigo-nori is, or just to learn more about the Ikegami Honmonji temple complex, feel free to ask any of the staff of the Ota City Tour Guide organization for a free tour of the complex.