The festival of Obon, a buddhist celebration of ancestors, is celebrated across Japan from the 13th-15th of August (excepting some regional variants). During Obon, the spirits of ancestors return to this world to visit family altars, though they are not limited to that location! At the culmination of this festival, in Kyoto, is the Gozan no Okuribi festival, better known as Daimonji, a spectacular mountain display of light and fire to guide the spirits home to their resting place.
What is Daimonji?
Daimonji is perhaps one of the most dramatic citywide fire displays in Japan. On the faces of six mountains around the city are displayed immense kanji characters of pine firewood and, beginning at eight pm on August 16, they are set ablaze. Across the Matsugasaki Nishiyama and Higashiyama mountains are giant representations of Myō and Hō (妙・法) the kanji for “wondrous dharma”. On Mt. Hidari-Daimonjiyama is the large character of Dai (大) and on Mt. Funayama is thwe ship-like “Funagata” character.
On Mt. Manadarayama there is an immense fiery representation of a tori gate, the gates found at shrine entrances, however the most impressive and famous is on Mt. Daimonji itself. Here is where most sightseers will flock to witness a huge burning Dai, the horizontal stroke of the kanji measuring 80 meters, the curved stroke from the center top to the bottom right 120 meters and the curved line from the center top to the bottom left a whopping 160 meters. It is this figure that will be set alight first, burning for thirty minutes. The other figures are lit at ten and five-minute intervals with all simultaneously ablaze by 8:20.
(Left to right: Toriigata, Hidari Daimonji, Funagata, Myō, Hō, Daimonji)
The history of Daimonji
Exact origins of the Daimonji Festival are unclear. One story has it that the tradition began with Kobo Daishi (774–835), a famed monk and creator of the Japanese kana alphabet, who lit up the character Dai when praying for an end to a plague.
It is most commonly believed that Gozan no Okuribi dates from the societal spread of Buddhism during the Muromachi period (1338-1773) and the story is that the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) built the Okuribi (literally meaning ‘fire send off’) after the premature death of his child. This legend is enhanced by the fact that the Ashikaga built Ginkaku-ji shrine lies at the foot of Daimonjiyama, and it is said that the remains of the Ashikaga Shogunate face the Okuribi directly.
Traditions and beliefs of Daimonji
As well as the firewood, the Okuribi are fuelled by Gomagi, wooden strips for ritual burning. On these charms, Kyotoans will write their name, age and any ailments they may suffer from and, having been handed in at either Kinkaku-ji, Adashi no Nenbutsu-ji, or Saiho-ji Temples, used to light the fires. Once the fires are lit, it is said that an observer who watches the Okuribi through a hole cut into an aubergine/eggplant will not suffer illnesses of the eye.
Should that same spectator catch the reflection of the Okuribi in his water glass he will be protected from paralysis. A reflection in a sake glass will save you from any further illness. Drinking distilled charcoal from the Okiburi is said to cure stomach pains and wrapping the charcoal cinders in Hoshogami paper and a Mizuhiki ribbon and hanging it in your home will protect you against evil, theft and danger.
Where and when?
Gozan no Okuribi takes place in central Kyoto from 8pm on August 16. While entrance to any part of the mountain is forbidden for general sightseers, there are many places from which you can view some or all of the bonfires. Many Japanese will head for the banks of the Kamogawa River between Sanjo and Imadegawa streets to watch the lighting of the main Dai. Groups and families will stake out the best spots and have picnics and drink sake. Should you follow suit, don’t forget to bring your own food and drink as a recent government ordinance has banned the stalls that can be found at most Japanese festivals.
Myo can be seen well from Kitayama-dori (near Notre Dame Jogakuin) and the Takanogawa River bank (north of Takanobashi Bridge) is ideal for Ho. Nishi-Oji-dori (Saiin – Kinkakuji) is a decent place to view the Dai at Hidari-Daimonji and Kitayama-dori (northwest of Kitayamabashi Bridge) is nice for the funagata. The torii-gata is best seen from Matsuobashi Bridge and Hirosawa-no-Ike Pond on which you can rent boats by the hour (though it is advisable to get there a minimum of an hour early to ensure getting your boat). From the highest point of Funaokayama Park (free admission), you can see of all the mountains except the torii-gata.
Please note that most of these are EXTREMELY crowded option; not for the feint of heart. If you don’t wish to wrestle with the general hoi poloi for your view, many high-rise hotels have Diamonji specials at which, for a price, you can command a panoramic view of the city and see all five fires. Additionally many restaurants offer views and good food, either option would spare you the crowds and heat, but get your reservations in early.
By Mark Guthrie
Image by http://micro.rohm.com (used without permission)