Shimomiya, a small shrine sitting amidst rice fields in Aso caldera, would be totally unremarkable if not for one thing: an unusual event that takes place here every year from August to October. It’s a religious rite related to agriculture – and tracing its roots to one of the most popular folk tales of Aso region.
The legend tells about Kihachi, a servant to the god Takeiwatatsu-no Mikoto (one of the founding fathers of Aso). Mikoto, a renowned archer, used to sit on top of Kishima-dake at the center of caldera and shoot arrows at one of the rocks of the north rim. Kihachi was a good runner, so his job was to pick the arrows up and bring them back.
One day Takeiwatatsu-no Mikoto shot 99 arrows and Kihachi brought back all of them. But he got so tired by the 100th time that he kicked the arrow back instead of bringing it, which angered the Mikoto. Mikoto killed Kihachi and cut off his head.
After that Kihachi became a vengeful spirit and started to cause trouble by bringing early frost to rice fields, damaging the crops. To appease him Takeiwatatsu-no Mikoto enshrined his spirit (and his head) in Shimomiya and held a fire ritual in early fall to warm the spirit up, thus preventing the frost. The ritual, called Hitaki Shinji, continues to be an annual event in Shimomiya to this day.
This is how it goes: goshintai (sacred object of a shrine, representing the enshrined deity) is transferred from the shrine to a separate building called Hitaki hall. There a young girl chosen from among the villagers has to keep the fire going for 59 days, from August 19th to October 16th, sending prayers to keep the frost away. In old times the girls had to stay inside the hall for the whole duration, but now they can combine their fire burning duties with going to school.
Hitaki Shinji has a status of Important Intangible Cultural Property in Japan.