Blaze and amaze: In Kyoto’s mountains is an annual festival that burns with culture.
Once a year in the middle of the ancestor-worshipping Obon (Japanese Festival of the Dead) holiday season in August, the mountainside near Ginkakuji in Kyoto Prefecture is set ablaze.
For most of the night, a fire rages that can be seen for miles around. However, far from a wild, uncontrollable conflagration, revelers soon notice that the fire spells a message in Japanese characters: 大 (great) on Daimonji mountain and 妙法 (The most splendid methods of the Buddha) on the nearby mountains.
This fire represents the complicated Japanese religious culture written large and proud. As well as spelling out sacred messages, it’s also believed to mark the moment that the ancestral spirits, who are believed to visit the earthly realm during the Obon holidays, return back to the spirit realm.
Whether you want to get involved in the Daimonji Festival itself or simply spectate, there are plenty of sights to see. The festival itself starts at 8 p.m., with the lighting of the “大” character. After which the “妙” and “法” characters are lit at five-minute intervals. Visitors should remain in their seats after the characters are lit so as not to miss the two other fires coming 5 minutes later — one in the shape of a boat and the other in the shape of a torii, or gateway to a shrine.
In Japan, alcohol is associated with religious ceremonies for the ancestors and it is said that if you drink a cup of sake, or Japanese rice wine, while the flaming characters from all the mountains are reflected in the cup, you will be granted protection from illness.
Regardless of what angle you watch it from, the blaze itself is a singularly unique spectacle. Plus, here’s a behind-the-scenes video of the fire in action. Enjoy!
The rest of the year
The flaming characters have become such a big part of the Obon festivities here that it’s hard to believe that for the rest of the year Daimonji mountain is used by hikers hoping to combine nature and culture in one trip.
Traveling up to the extinguished “大” on Daimon-ji mountain offers you a chance to see the characters during the “season” with a great panoramic view over Kyoto. As this area is easily accessed from both Kyoto’s famous Silver Pavilion and the temples on Tetsugaku Street, the view from the mountainside down is a different way to see these famous sights.
Whether you’re interested in the area for its spectacular summer displays or its hiking, the Daimonji mountain area offers a chance to see one of the most famous areas of Kyoto in a different way.
The best part is that there are two views of the sight: you can watch from the bottom and see the famous Kyoto temples through the light of the flaming mountainside or watch from the top of the mountain itself, looking down on one of Japan’s most iconic areas.