I have a confession to make. As a full time member of Burning Man’s Communications Team, I’ve spoken and written quite a bit about the growing network of Burning Man events across the United States and around the world. ‘The future of Burning Man is in the Regionals’ is heard with some regularity here at BMHQ.
And yet, until just a few weeks ago, I had never actually participated in a ‘regional event’. The Burning Man Regional Network of events and community leaders is growing steadily. Today there are 265 official regional contacts in 125 locations and 65 events held annually in more than 15 countries on 5 continents.
Happily, in a post Black Rock City dusty-eyed haze, I pulled myself away from day-to-day Burning Man communications long enough to experience one of them – in Japan. Now in its 4th year (3rd as an “official” regional event), Burning Japan is a 4-day event produced by a year-round core team of 20ish Japanese Burners, with the help of 50+ onsite volunteers.
So my colleague Iris Yee and I were pleased to pack our bags and set off across the Pacific to check out how the Japanese are manifesting Burning Man in their home country.
If you’ve traveled overseas to get to Black Rock City, you know the quandaries – how can you bring something to the burn with nearly nothing in hand? What can you contribute to the community? How will you transport yourself and everything you need to be self-reliant on your back?
Trips to grocery stores and convenience stores were followed by furious packing and repacking, followed by planes, trains, and a hike.
But we made it.
And boy am I glad we did. What unfolded over the next few days was nothing short of beautiful. Inspiring. Heartwarming.
Japanese Regional Contact Makibee and her team dreamed, planned and then co-created the experience with the 400 participants of all ages, roughly ¾ of which were Japanese, the rest being expats from countries including England, Ireland, Israel, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia and the US.
I was delighted to discover that Burning Japan was full of the same kinds of interactions, creations, and transformations based on mutual respect and curiosity that we’ve come to expect in Black Rock City.
Confession number two: my expectations for this gathering were, well, moderate. I assumed I might be going to a campout. But this was a full-on burn. Participants were pushing themselves and their creative limits, connecting and collaborating — they were exploring new ways of relating to themselves and the world around them.
People were literally moved to tears by a newfound freedom they felt hard to describe. They were doing in community what they could not do alone.
On day one we came upon the group building the Phoenix effigy together (Burning Japan’s answer to the Man) —- they were co-creating, addressing problems, searching for solutions —- all while laughing, connecting, celebrating. This is it, I thought. The same framework. The same basic elements. And it’s working. In Japan.
Burning Japan may seem primitive in comparison to the extravagant and complex projects and camps one finds in Black Rock City. The bar there has been set really, really high. At Burning Japan, there is just enough to spark the imagination but it all seems doable and everyone is welcome to jump in. Not too expensive. Not too complicated. Accessible. Possible.
Getting back to basics can be powerful. I watched a father help his young son approach a new group of people carrying a bag of lollipops. “Just ask if they want one,” he said. Once the boy got up the courage to do so, and the response was so positive, his light turned on. Gifting just feels good. And it really can be that simple.
Several participants actually expressed, in various ways, that they felt people living in Japan might actually need this more than those in other parts of the world. The freedom. The permission to let go, to tap into what you know to be true and and to share it – to celebrate who you are and what you have to offer the world. As it happens, Burners from Japan were some of the first far-flung visitors that began showing up in Black Rock City in the late 90s and expressing a keen interest in all things Burning Man.
On day two I worked a shift at the Gate/Greeters (one and the same here at Burning Japan). Confession three: as I’ve learned from my late night shifts on Gate Road, I love working gate. That day I got to welcome a family to their first (last-minute) burn. When I asked the Dad of three (ages eight, six and three) what motivated them to come, he said that he wants his kids to be exposed to new ideas. He hoped the event would ‘plant a seed’ so that when they have an idea, when they want to play or build or make something, they will feel like they can do it because they experienced this.
Our Burning Japan neighbor Daisuke went to Black Rock City in 2004 and 2005. In high school he saw a photograph in a magazine — it was a of a bicycle ‘covered in fur’ and he decided he needed to see this. To go there. I love this. This is Daisuke’s first Burning Japan. “I can’t believe it’s the same [as BRC]” he says, the disbelief and wonder of it hanging between the two of us for a moment. We agree: there’s something of everything here. One tiny art car (ok, it’s a tricycle), a beautiful little temple, an art installation, a couple of music camps, food camps, lights blinking, music thumping, kids running around exploring, laughter everywhere, gifting everything. But most important is the feeling. The warmth, the openness, the spontaneity.
Connecting human to human is simple but powerful stuff, and Burning Japan was a moving reminder of this. The journey was long. Our backpacks were heavy. But our arrival was celebrated. Tickets were torn. Tutus were donned. Hugs received. Shouts of “Welcome Home!” and “Happy Burn!” standing out among other indecipherable chatter in a beautiful but distinctly foreign language.
It was as though they’d been waiting for us the whole time. And I felt absolutely welcome. Here in this country oceans away from the one I’m from, I am a part of something. I belong.
We also met a participant named James, a Brit living in Hong Kong who has always wanted to go to BRC but hasn’t made it yet. When I ask him what he thinks about his first burn, he says the feeling is what he had hoped for. People want to talk, he says, about lots of things. They want to engage with each other, with him. And it feels wonderful.
And in that moment I’m reminded that Burning Man inspires people to change their lives for the better – to be more authentic, to learn new skills, to connect with others, to collaborate and breathe life into their dreams. And the world, I think, needs more of that.
On the last night of the burn, Iris and I hosted a “What is Burning Man?” discussion at Center Camp. One participant asked about Burning Man’s staying power: “In light of so many movements and happenings that have come and gone over the years, why does Burning Man’s momentum and influence continue to grow?”
Surely there are many answers to that question, but I think Burning Man may have longevity precisely because it can be reinvented – it can change but still maintain something fundamental to its nature. Burning Man is only a context, a canvas, a blank slate waiting to be made meaningful.
The content changes over time and space. It can be applied to any situation, by anyone. It’s a way of relating person to person that is based on what is essentially human – the desire to connect. To see and be seen. To feel just a little less alone.
And now, with so many Burners doing so many burner-y things in far corners of the world, that experience is accessible to more people than ever before. The future of Burning Man just might really be in the Regionals. Before I’d been, it was difficult to truly trust that the spirit of the dusty thing lives on elsewhere. But I’m certain of it now.
It’s out there, not in here. Black Rock City may be the cauldron but, I confess, the culture of Burning Man is alive and well year-round and around the world.
Check out this amazing flyover video of Burning Japan 2015 by Joe Moross, editing by Alvin Cheung: