Gozan-no-Okuribi (Part 1)

August 13, 2008

by Ayako Senju

What is Gozan-no-Okuribi ?
The Meaning of Lighting Fires on a Summer Night
The Origin of Gozan-no-Okuribi is Unknown

What is Gozan-no-Okuribi ?

On the evening of every August 16th, giant bonfires are lit on five mountains that surround Kyoto.
This is a very famous and eye-catching event, so you may often see pictures of these fires
in some books or tourist pamphlets. They are common symbols of Kyoto and the Kansai region.
This festival is called“Gozan-no-Okuribi (五山の送り火),” or in English,
“Sending Fire to Five Mountains” or sometimes the “Daimonji Bonfires.”
There are five fires: three in the shape of Chinese characters,
one in the shape of a boat, and the last in the shape of a torii gate.

Of these fires, the one in the shape of the Chinese character “dai” (“big”) is the largest and most famous.
The people who lived at the foot of the mountains over many generations once lit
these fires every August. However, this festival is now organized by
the Five-Mountain Daimonji Preservation Committee with some assistance from the Kyoto municipal government.

Location of the fires:

At present, the bonfires on Kyoto mountains are:

Dai (big 大) is on Mt. Daimonji (大文字), which rises behind Ginkakuji Temple (The Silver Pavilion)
in the eastern mountains of Kyoto. (lit at 8:00pm)

Myo (妙) and Ho (法) are in Matsugasaki in northern Kyoto,
on Mt. Mantoro and Mt. Daikokuten respectively.
They are counted as one mountain. Myoho means “the supreme law” in Buddhism. (lit at 8:10pm)

Funagata, (shape of a ship 船形) is on Mt. Myoken in Nishigamo
in the northwest part of Kyoto. (lit at 8:15pm)

Left-side Dai (左大文字) is on Mt. Ookita,
which rises behind Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion). (lit at 8:15pm)

Toriigata (shape of a torii gate 鳥居形)” is on Mt. Mandara in Saga
on the west side of Kyoto. (lit at 8:20pm)
The Meaning of Lighting Fires on a Summer Night

At first, let’s look at the meaning of lighting fires on August 16th.
We need to know about Japanese bon or obon. Bon is an old Japanese custom to
welcome back the spirits of our ancestors. The bon period is from August 13th to the 16th,
and many bon festivals and events are held around this time. Okuribi, bonfires lit on summer nights,
are one of the old practices of bon.Such bonfires are now regarded as Buddhist events, but it is said that they originated in
folk customs that later became mixed with Buddhism.

The Origin of Gozan-no-Okuribi is Unknown

There are countless fire festivals held in August, and Gozan-no-Okuribi is among the most famous of them.

Why did the Gozan event become so huge?
In spite of the fact that Gozan-no-Okuribi is widely known,
this event still holds a lot of mystery. I have to say that we need to make a lot of guesswork
when it comes to its history. Actually, there are no historical records that show its origin.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan in the Heian era (794-1185),
but there are no records about fires being lit on the mountains from that time.
Gozan-no-Okuribi may not have existed yet.
The fire festival events seemed to have become popular from the Sengoku era (around 1500).
Kyoto people put out many lanterns, lit big touches, and walked around the city to enjoy festivals.
The origin of Gozan-no-Okuribi may be one of these festivals.
I heard one theory from a member of Torii Torches Preservation Committee:

“I suppose the origin of Gozan-no-Okuribi was merely one of these small fire festivals.
Each village competed to hold bolder fire festivals.
Some people put fires on long wooden poles, some placed small fires
in paper boats and set them afloat on streams.
Finally, somebody came up with lighting fires on a mountain
so that the public could have a better look at their fantastic idea.”

As I searched for the festival’s origin, I found out that there used to be more bonfire mountains
in Kyoto than there are today.
For example, “I (い)” in Ichihara city was lit until the beginning of the Meiji period (about 1868.)
Some elders who were living in Kyoto 50 years ago were able to see this bonfire.
Additional fires also used to be seen on other mountains in Kyoto:
“pole and bell,” “long-handled sword,” “ichi (一),”and “snake.”
But they seemed to have passed away into history and we cannot see them now.
Mountains that now have fires have been settled to just five.

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