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On the fourth Saturday of every January, the city of Nara sets light to its mountain, Wakakusayama, in a huge blaze known as “Wakakusa Yamayaki” – and this year I was lucky enough to be able to witness it.
The origins of this festival are unknown, but most accounts agree that the tradition began after a border dispute between Todaiji Temple and Kofukuji Temple went sour and the mountain was torched as a result. Other explanations suggest that the fires were started to drive away wild boars, or to cull insects. Whatever its roots, the Yamayaki has reportedly been happening in Nara for hundreds of years.
The festivities begin in the afternoon, and the area around the foot of Wakakusayama plays host to a range of activities and the usual food stalls that attend every festival in Japan. As darkness begins to fall, torches are lit by monks at the Mizutani Bridge in Nara city and brought by a procession to the foot of the mountain, where a large bonfire is lit and a Buddhist ceremony performed.
As the festival begins in earnest, hundreds of spectators gather to watch a firework display before the grass on the mountain itself is set ablaze and flames progress slowly up the slope up towards the peak. Apparently on some years wet grass means that the mountain is incompletely burnt, but this year everything goes off without a hitch – and in the morning the entire mountain is blackened to a crisp.
I watched the mountain-burning from the foot of Wakakusayama, but other spots around Nara afford equally impressive views of the festival. Some of the most amazing photos of the burning are taken with Kofukuji’s pagoda, the symbol of Nara, in the foreground.
After my experience at the Yamayaki, I began to wonder whether there were other fire festivals celebrated in Japan and decided to do a little research. I soon discovered that Japan is a nation of pyromaniacs – their fire-worshipping puts Guy Fawkes’ Night to shame. Here are five of the best:
2. Dosojin Fire Festival
This festival takes place in January at Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture, and has been described by Charlie Brooker as “a cross between an oil rig disaster and the finale of the Wicker Man.” Since the ages of 25 and 42 are considered unlucky for men in Japan, the residents of Nozawa Onsen have discovered the perfect solution. After a mock wooden shrine has been constructed in the centre of the village, all the 42-year-olds climb on top and all the 25-year-olds surround the base, whilst the rest of the villagers attempt to burn the structure down with torches and flaming projectiles. The shrine’s defenders fight back in a drunken fury until the shrine finally catches light, and the 42-year-olds must then scramble to safety as their erstwhile stronghold goes up in a pillar of flames. I think we can be pretty sure that this wouldn’t be allowed to happen in England.
3. Yoshida Fire Festival
The Yoshida no Himatsuri is held on the 26th and 27th of August at the Fuji Sengen Shrine in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture. The festival has been held for over 500 years, and is based on the story of the Goddess of Mount Fuji, whose husband accuses her of having an affair when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. To prove the paternity of her child, the deity locks herself in a room of Fuji Sengen Shrine and sets it on fire – the child survives, proving its supernatural paternity to the doubtful husband.
To celebrate this legend, each year the inhabitants of Fujiyoshida must take the goddess out of her home at the shrine and parade her around the city, demonstrating its value to her so that she will prevent Mt. Fuji from erupting for another year. Portable shrines are paraded through the streets along with over 90 three-metre torches, and spectators can enjoy taiko drumming performances and the usual food vendors in an atmosphere that suggests a Japan of old.
4. Kurama Fire Festival
The Kurama no Himatsuri is hailed as one of Kyoto’s “three most eccentric festivals” (Japan does love to rank its attractions), and occurs on the 22nd of October at Yuki Shrine. At around 6pm, watch-fires are lit in front of each house in the area, taiko drums begin to sound, the the residents of Kurama – both children and adults – parade through the streets carrying flaming torches weighing up to 100kg and shouting at the tops of their lungs. This goes on until around 8pm, when the burning torches are gathered at Yuki Shrine and a portable shrine is taken down into the village and paraded through the streets until the end of the festival at around midnight.
5. Gozan Fire Festival
This festival, known as Daimonji Gozan no Okuribi (or just “Daimonji”), is also based in Kyoto and happens at the climax of the O-Bon festival on August 16th. Five giant bonfires are lit on the mountains surrounding the city, signifying the moment when the ancestral spirits who had been visiting the land of the living during the festival return to the spirit world. Specific families have charge of arranging the bonfires, three of which form giant Chinese characters, one the shape of a boat, and the last the shape of a torii shrine gate.
6. Oniyo Fire Festival
Oniyo Festival, held at Fukuoka’s Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine in early January, claims to have been held for over 1,600 years and is a ceremony to drive away evil spirits. For seven days a “devil fire” is guarded at the shrine, before it is transferred to six giant torches measuring a metre in diameter and a whopping 15 metres in length. These torches are carried around the grounds of the shrine by men in loincloths, and it is considered good luck if ash or embers fall on the watching crowds.
If you’d like to see one of these amazing fire festivals on your trip to Japan, just get in touch with one of our travel consultants and start planning your trip today. Click here to contact us now.