Once a year in the middle of the ancestor-worshipping Obon (Japanese Festival of the Dead) season in August, the mountainside near the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto Prefecture is set ablaze. For most of the night on Aug 16, 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 nearby mountains.
This fire represents the complicated Japanese religious culture written large and proud. It also marks the moment that the ancestral spirits — who are believed to visit the earthly realm during Obon — return back to the spirit realm.
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. Stay in your seat after the characters are lit so as not to miss the last two displays — one in the shape of a boat and the other in the shape of a torii, or gateway to a shrine!
Drinking a cup of sake (Japanese rice wine) while the flaming characters are reflected in the cup, is believed to grant you protection from illness. Regardless of what angle you watch it from, the blaze itself is a singularly unique spectacle.
The Daimonji mountain becomes a popular hiking destination both during the festivities and after.
Traveling up to the extinguished “大” offers you a chance to see the character with a great panoramic view over Kyoto. The view from the mountainside also provides a unique way to see famous sights such as the Philosopher’s Path.
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