December 17, 2013
by Miho Hosotani, Keita Kitagawa, & Takuma Osawa
What is Daimonji-yaki?
Daimonji-yaki is original Japanese culture, and one of the most famous events in Kyoto. In this event, kanji characters are marked on the mountain side and illuminated by fire. This ceremony is held during Obon, on the 16th of August. Obon is one of the Japanese national holidays, and according to Buddhist legend, is when the souls of dead people return and we receive them.
Daimonji-yaki is set on the sides of five mountains in Kyoto, and the burning proceeds in order from East to West: Daimonji → Myoho → Funagata → Sadaimonji → Torii . They continue to burn for about one hour.
Daimonji is a kind of opening ceremony to kick off Daimonji-yaki, and its origins date back between 300 years and 500 years.
It is also called Joseigata, which in English means female style, because of the slender and beautiful character used.
Light up starts from 20:00.
Myoho, the second one, comes from Japanese religious belief. People dance a bon-odori (Japanese traditional dance at the top of the mountain, and the character is lit 10 minutes after Daimonji, at 20:10.
Preparation for Funagata, the third one, starts from early morning on the 16th. At night, accompanied by the sound of a temple bell, people light it 5minutes after Myoho at 20:15. Once the ceremony is finished, the chief priest and other workers talk about it inside the temple.
The fourth one, Sadaimonji has a shorter history than Daimonji, Myoho and Funagata. It is called Otokogata, which in English means male style, because it is thicker and stronger than Daimonji. If we compare it with Daimonji, Funagata, and Myoho, Sadaimonji it is newer, but it still has more than 300 years of history. The light up time is the same as Funagata, from 20:15.
Preparation for the last one, Torii, starts from 20.00 on the 16th. It is said to be the grandest and most beautiful of all five. Originally, Torii is the gate that marks the territory of the gods. It is the fastest burning of the five, so it is called the ‘Fire runner’. People call these five stages of the burning ceremony Gozan Okuribi.
Daimonji-yaki is well known to foreigners, so Kyoto is frequented by tourists every summer looking to view it. Originally, ”Daimonji-yaki” took place as a memorial service for ancestors during the Bon Festival. The Bon Festival is a ceremony to welcome spirits, a bit like Halloween. Daimonji-yaki is made using the Chinese character 大, which is composed of three lines. The first horizontal line measures 80 meters; the second, 160 meters from the top down to the left; and the last 120 meters from the horizontal bar down to the right. As it is so large, we can see it clearly even from far away on a summer’s night. The local people call it Daimonji-San, and through this, we can see how much it is loved by local people. During World War Ⅱ it was cancelled, but thanks to the strong mind of Japanese people and their actions, an understanding was reached to revive it and continue the beauty of its form to this day. From now on as well, we hope to see every year this beautiful flame as part of Japanese traditional culture.
The interesting modern history of Daimonji-yaki
Due to fears of making Kyoto an easy target for Allied bomber planes during the Second World War, Daimonji-yaki was cancelled in 1943. However, with the Japanese spirit of ganbari, the ceremony, was continued by using local school kids as a substitute for the flaming markers. They climbed the mountain to make a giant white 大 wearing white T-shirts. This was repeated the following year in 1944; however this was to be the last Daimonji ceremony until its official revival in the year 1946, following the end of the Pacific war.
For several years leading up to 2011 pine trees from Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture had been imported and used in the okuribi ceremony. However, due to fears of radioactive contamination stemming from the 2011 Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster the organizers of the event put a ban on the use of Iwate pines on the 6th of August. The decision to cancel was met with severe protest and the organizers of the event were flooded with phone calls demanding the decision be overturned. Caving to this pressure, the organizers of the 2011 event decided that they would use the imported pines until a test definitively proved the presence of the radioactive material cesium, which solidified the organizers’ resolve to ban the use of Iwate pines.
Access to Daimonji
There are two ways to access the best viewpoints for Daimonjiyaki:
1. Kyoto City Bus: From Kyoto Station Bus Terminal catch bus number 17, and get off at the “Demachiyanagi” stop. It takes about 20 minutes, depending on the traffic and costs 220 yen.
2. JR Kyoto: From Kyoto JR Station, take the Nara line, train to Tofukuji Station and change to the Keihan line, take the north bound train and get off at Demachiyanagi terminal. It takes about 30 minutes, and costs about 480yen.
From our experience, we recommend you to take the train, because during this season a lot of tourists come to Kyoto, from inside Japan, as well as from all over the world. Last year, we went to Daimonji-yaki ceremony separately and planned to meet there, but it was impossible and we couldn’t find each other until the ceremony had finished and most people had disappeared. We hope you like it and enjoy your summer vacation in Kyoto!
Asahi Shinbun, 2011, Cesium detected in Daimonji-Yaki firewood – usage of Iwate pines to be discontinued, accessed 5th December 2013, <http://www.asahi.com/special/10005/OSK201108120098.html>
The Second Kyotoism Blog, Daimonji: gozan okuribi sono futatsu, 2011, accessed 5th December 2013 <http://2ndkyotoism.blog101.fc2.com/blog-entry-319.html>
Kioto-shi Kankou Kyoukai, accessed 5th December 2013 < http://www.kyokanko.or.jp/okuribi/>