Gozan-no-Okuribi (Part II)

August 13, 2008

by Ayako Senju

The Stages of Gozan-no-Okuribi

My Photo Diary of Festival Preparations

All Citizens Unite for Gozan-no-Okuribi

Tips on How to Enjoy Gozan-no-Okuribi

Some Interesting Stories

The Stages of Gozan-no-Okuribi

The main day of Gozan-no-Okuribi is August 16th, but members of the

Five-Mountain Daimonji Preservation Committee work on the festival the entire year.

Here is a brief and general schedule of their preparations.

General Preparations

Clean the mountain, make repairs to the mountain road.

Cut the firewood around February.

Winter is the driest season, so it is the best time to cut trees and store wood.

The Day of the Festival: Noon

People write down their wishes on gomaki. The gomaki are sacred wooden boards upon which people write their name and their wishes.

Sometimes they also write the names of those close to them who have passed away.

To bless the gomaki and the firewood, sutras are read by a temple priest.

The Night of the Festival:

Standby on the mountain.

Light the fires.

Let burn for 30 minutes, then extinguish the fires with water.

Several Days Later:

Clean up the mountain.

My photo Diary of Festival Preparations

The following pictures were taken at the Torii-Gate Fire on the 16th of August 2007, so let’s follow this group and see what they do.

Visitors usually cannot enter the mountain, but I was fortunate enough to be allowed to attend the 2007 festival as a seminar researcher.

It is Sunday, 9:00am, and the Torii-Gate Fire members have gathered at an assembly hall at the foot of the mountain. Many of them have jobs, so some of them took a day off to work on this event.

Priests from Adashino Nembutsu-ji Temple read a sutra for the gomaki.

Members climb the mountain, carrying the gomaki, firewood, and cold drinks. August is the hottest month! They really have to take care of themselves!



Gomaki are piled up in stacks like a campfire. Seven stacks are made altogether.

They tie the firewood into 108 bundles, one for each fireplace.

Stored Water

At 6:00pm workers eat obento or lunch box.

After finishing their lunch, they light the seven stacks of gomaki.

These seven fires are later used to light the firewood.

The gomaki are not enough to keep the fire burning for two hours, so they throw on extra firewood.




The dots in this picture represent the seven stacks of gomaki. The bigger fires are lit from these.




Firemen pour water on wood to prevent the nearby forest from catching on fire

The city lights are gradually extinguished as the time of the fire approaches.

Crowds are slowly gathering at the foot of Mandala Mountain.

Noise increases: the voices of people, and policemen shouting at visitors to keep their cars moving.

At 8:00pm Dai is lit and can be seen from the Torii-Gate site.

The other fire mountains cannot be seen from here.

8:20pm, time for the Torii-Gate Fire!

The men grab the bundles of wood, already lit by the burning gomaki, run with them and place them on round, elevated fire-plates.

This is called “running fire” and is a unique tradition of the Torii-Gate Fire.

Other mountains are now just adding wood to their fires, which have already been prepared in a fireplace and are now lit at almost the same time.

From the foot of the mountains, we continually see the flashes of cameras.

8:50pm, finishing time. Firemen put out all the remaining fires. We climb down from the mountain.

Because we are on the mountain, there is no electricity and it is very dark. We follow the beams of the flashlights, descending carefully.

The following Sunday morning, we climb up the mountain again to clean up the mess left by the fires.

We pick up pieces of charcoal and rope which once bound the firewood, sweep the fire-plates, and paint the equipment with rust-proof paint for next year’s fire.

All Citizens Unite for Gozan-no-Okuribi

This city accepts both modernization and traditional culture,

so it is not surprising that in Kyoto traffic is tightly controlled for big festivals like Gion or Jidai Matsuri.

Some special regulations are enacted on the day of Gozan-no-Okuribi.

One regulation is to turn off noticeable building lights.

Some Kyoto city officials accompany workers to turn off the lights.

Before the fires are lit, some officials climb up the mountain to check for bright lights in the city.

If they find any that are too bright, they contact the city office by radio transceiver.

Then the city office then calls upon the building and asks them to turn off their light.

Another regulation is to have the presence of firemen at the fires. As soon as any stray sparks fall on the ground,

the firemen extinguish them immediately.

Tips on How to Enjoy Gozan-no-Okuribi

Members of the Five-Mountain Daimonji Preservation Committee make a great effort each year, but visitors also need to make some effort too if they want to get a nice view of the fires.

Where to best watch the fires:

Daimonji: from the banks of the Kamo River.

Myo-Ho: from Kitayama Street or the banks of the Takano River

Ship: from Kitayama Street

Left Daimonji: from Nishioji Street (from Sain to Kinkakuji)

Torii: Gate from Matsuo Bridge or Hirosawa Pond

About 100,000 people come to see Okuribi, so it is often difficult to find a good spot from which to view the festival.

The closer to the mountains, the more crowded it gets, so I recommend avoiding places that are too close.

On the day of the festival most hotel rooms are full, having already been reserved from a month before. Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Station choose a limited number of visitors by lottery.

If you have a friend who lives in Kyoto city, you may want to beg them to let you stay overnight!

Visitor Needs:

Visitors may want to write their wishes on gomaki.

By writing on a plaque, it is believed that one can recover from disease when the plaque is burned in Okuribi.

Some people write wishes like “Let me pass the examination” or “I want a girlfriend.”

They sell gomaki at the following times and places (as of 2007):

Daimonji — 15th, 12:00-20:00, 16th, 6:00-15:00, in front of Ginkaku-ji Temple

Ship — 4th~15th 8:00-16:00, 16th 9:00-15:00, in front of Seihou-ji Temple Left Daimonji — 15th 9:00-15:00, 16th 7:00-12:00, in front of Kinkaku-ji Temple

Torii-gate — 13th~15th 9:30-16:00, 16th 9:00-15:00, in front of Adashino Nembutsu-ji Temple.

Myo and Ho have no gomaki, but they hold a bon dance from 8:00-10:00 on the 15th, and 9:00-10:00 on the 16th in front of Yusen-ji Temple.

That dance called “sashi-odori.”

Mt. Daimonji can be climbed any day except for August 16th.

It takes about one hour to get to the fireplaces.

This is the view from Mt. Daimonji. The Torii Gate cannot be seen in this photo

Some Interesting Stories

Folk beliefs

1 Drink a cup of sake or water with the reflection Daimonji in it, and you won’t get any disease.

2 A piece of charcoal from Okuribi hung on your front door keeps evil away from your family and house.

3 Drinking the charcoal powder of Okuribi mixed in water brings you good health.

4 It is said that ancestoral spirits come back to this world guided by “Daimonji,” then read a sutra at “Myo-Ho,”and finally ride the “Ship” to go through the “Torii-Gate.”

Not Okuribi, but. . .

Okuribi was a fire for sending off our ancestors, but in the old days fires were lit for other reasons:

Five mountains were lit when the Russian emperor visited Kyoto in 1891.

Also when Japan won wars in 1895 and 1903, delighted Kyoto citizens lit fires on Mt. Daimonji that meant “Celebrate Peace.”

On the other hand, they could not light the fire for three years because of the Pacific War. Instead, elementary-school students dressed in white clothes climbed the mountain and made a white “Dai” on the morning of August 16th.

On December 31st of 2000, the last day of the 20th century, five mountains were lit to welcome in the new century.

Learning these past stories led me to believe that Gozan Okuribi is in fact a symbol of Kyoto people’s pleasure!

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