Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Monks Cutting Bamboo Festival – Takakiri-eshiki

On June 20th, on Mt Kuruma north of Kyoto an interesting ritual is held where Japanese Buddhist monks hack at thick bamboo stalks in order to drive out evil and ensure good harvests. The ritual is known as Takekiri-eshiki and goes back over a thousand years.

The origin of the ritual is said to come from an encounter a monk had with two huge snakes in the 9th Century. The snakes were male and female and they no doubt saw the monk as a meal. The monk, however, was able to kill the male snake with a well-aimed prayer. The female snake pleaded for mercy and promised to guard the waters of the mountain.

In the Takakiri-eshiki ritual, bamboo stalks representing the male snake are cut by sword-wielding monks. There are two teams representing the ancient provinces of Omi and Tamba. It’s believed that whichever team cuts the quicker their represented area will have the better harvest.

For more photos:
Takakiri-eshiki photos

September 21, 2012 Posted by | buddhism, japan, japanese culture, Japanese festival, Kyoto, mt. kurama, travel | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rain Fails to Dampen Japanese Fire Festival Spirit

Rain Fails to Dampen Japanese Fire Festival Spirit
Kurama Fire Festival in Northern Kyoto

Rain fails to douse giant torches at Kurama’s Fire Festival

Fire and water as a rule generally do not mix as the saying goes. One usually overcomes the other in abundance. Rain has often been the bane of many outdoor-related fire activities from barbeques, to camp fires, to bonfires but the Fire Festival of Mt. Kurama in northern Kyoto refused to be doused despite downpours.

Some of the torches can reach 5-6 meters (15-18 feet) in length

A portable shrine – mikoshi

The Kurama-no-Himatsuri is an ancient festival ritual going back to the late 8th century that come rain or starshine (it’s always at night) is performed every year on Oct. 22. The purpose of the festival is to guide spirits and gods by torchlight along their way through the human world to the spiritual realm. Wayward spirits might remain to cause mischief in our world so the festival served to clear the mountain and the capital below of potentially evil spirits.

Torches of all sizes are carried about the mountain. They range in size from one-handed deals to gargantuan ones that require four or five stout men to carry them. The large torches put off a lot of heat and periodically their bearers are doused with water to keep them from overheating.

A Family’s Treasure on Display

This was my second time at the festival. The first time the mountaintop was crowded with milling residents, tourists, and guiding police. This time the guiding police were still in force but they practically outnumbered the visiting spectators. The reason for this was the rain. For most of the day leading up to the festival, it had been raining quite steadily thus casting a wet blanket over the enthusiasm for visitors to make the journey up the mountain.

An impressive old family heirloom

I almost gave into the suffocating effect of the wet blanket preferring a warm cafe to a cold wet mountain. Fortunately, I was able to cast the blanket off and force myself to make the journey. Not long afterwards, I was quite happy that I had made the effort. Absent were the throngs of visitors that cluttered up the train and mountaintop the last time I had visited. The spirit of the festival, however, was undampened being still “fiery” as ever and this time I could be closer to the action.

Adding to the fun and the surrealness of it all were the number of attending Tengu – Japanese goblins. Kurama’s famous mythical denizen is the Tengu which come in two shapes – redskinned long nose goblins or winged crow-headed goblins. The long-nose goblins make for popular masks and quite a few people were sporting these.

A Tengu Goblin on the way back from Kurama’s Fire Festival

As for the rain, from time to time it did come down but it was only a minor inconvenience. The great torches sputtered and crackled but did not go out. The amount of smoke was considerable though due to this.

Koff! Koff! Must be in the the smoking section!

After the torches reached the shrine, a large bonfire was constructed. Then two large mikoshi – portable shrines – were brought down the steep path from the temple. On their backs rode two men in samurai armor sans helmet. The mikoshi bearers rocked the shrines up and down seemingly trying to knock the fellows off. All around them carrying regular-sized torches were men, women, and children singing the festival’s age-old chant of “sei-rei, sei-ryo!” which means something like “festival, good festival!”

And indeed despite the weather, it was a good festival and I was glad I had made it.

shouldering a hot heavy load

November 18, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, entertainment, festival, fire, fire festival, japan, japanese culture, kurama-no-himatsuri, Kyoto, life, mt. kurama, travel, video, vlog, weird, youtube | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Japanese Fire Festival on Kyoto’s Mt. Kurama

Fire on the Mountain
The Kurama-no-Himatsuri: a spectacle of fire, smoke and noise
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Buddhist priests leading the fiery procession

Visitors to Kyoto will find themselves in for quite a treat if they are in the city on Oct. 22 because two great festivals are held that day.

At noon the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) is held in central Kyoto. It’s a two-hour long procession depicting the various fashions and famous people from Kyoto’s long history. In the evening, the place to go is up to the mountain temple of Mt. Kurama to see the Kurama-no-Himatsuri — the Fire Festival.

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A Smoky Procession of Giant Torches

The whole mountaintop looks like it’s on fire from the constant stream of torch-bearing participants going to and fro from the temple. The torches range in size from simple handheld torches to gargantuan ones that require three to four people to carry.

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Torches blaze while their bearers take a break

The festival’s origins go back over a thousand years to the late 8th century when the Emperor would send torch bearers from his palace all the way up to the temple. The purpose of this ancient rite is to guide the spirits of departed souls and gods along their way through the human world by the light of pine torches.

Crowd Warning!
A tip on how to beat the long wait
user posted imageThe Kurama Fire Festival attracts a large crowd so it’s best to head up early.The Demachiyanagi Station around 5 p.m. gets extremely crowded with a huge line waiting to take the train to Kurama – 45 minutes outside of central Kyoto.The wait-time after 5 can be up to three hours. Some people opt for a taxi. Another option is to do as I did and walk 10-15 minutes to the next station and cram yourself into the next oncoming train. The return train also boasts a long line so a 15 minute walk down to the next station would be advisable.

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Priests carrying blazing pine torches light the way for roaming spirits

For the families around the temple this is a time to set out their heirlooms for display. Visitors can see suits of samurai armor, colorful folding screens, and exquisite ceramic dishes.

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Family treasures on display

The festival begins with young boys in kimonos carrying small pine torches.

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Children carrying a large torch

After them come teenage boys carrying slightly larger ones together in groups of two or three. Older boys and men dressed in loincloths, colorful half-shirts and headbands carry even larger torches.

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A smiling youngster helping carry a big torch

Then around 8 p.m. come the really big torches — measuring five to six meters in length — which sometimes requires four stout men to carry.

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Torch bearers struggle under their load

As fire and smoke fill the air, the torch bearers chant “sai-rei, sai-ryo!” which means simply “festival, good festival!” Taiko drummers help to get the festivities “fired” up with a rhythmic booming of Taiko drums accompanied by the jangling clangor of metal being beaten to a lively beat.

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“Hot” buns

Even for visitors, things can get a little hectic with all this fire about. Sometimes these large torches are turned around and visitors have to move out of the way or duck to avoid being singed by huge flames. Burning braziers on tripods dot the way along the festival route and the unwary can accidentally bump into these sending a cascade of blazing sparks all around.

The Kurama-no-Himatsuri is an exciting and lively festival with just a hint of danger to make it interesting. It’s definitely worth seeing even with the throngs of people and the smell of smoke that will cling to your clothes.

A torch burns a little too close to its bearer’s shoulder

Mt. Kurama and Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune
Exiled youth receives training from goblins


Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune and his faithful companion Benkei

The Kurama-dera temple is famous in Japanese history as the place of exile of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune (1157-1189), one of the tragic heroes of the late 12th Century. Yoshitsune’s father was a leader of a failed attempt to seize the reigns of power from the Heike family. His father was assassinated and a number of his relatives were executed. Yoshitsune was only a young boy of two during all this but the times were cruel and often young sons of enemies were killed to prevent them seeking revenge later in life.

Taira-no-Kiyomori (1118?-1180), leader of the Heike, was prevailed upon by his mother to spare the lives of Yoshitsune and his half-brother, Yoritomo, on behalf of their youth. As it turned  out, it was not the best of decisions for after Kiyomori’s death, the two half-brothers led the Genji clan in the destruction of the Heike.

Kiyomori sent Yoshitsune to Kurama-dera temple to keep him from causing trouble and with the hope he would become a peace-abiding monk. According to legend, Yoshitsune met the fabled Tengu – winged goblins with faces of crows or men with long noses — on Mt. Kurama and learned from them the fighting arts. Yoshitsune later escaped from Mt. Kurama and led the Genji to victory over the Heike.

Unfortunately, his success and popularity earned him the animosity of Yoritomo who was the supreme leader of the Genji and as well as all of Japan with the Heike’s fall. Yoshitsune was forced to flee for his life and live on the run as an outlaw for several years until, cornered at last, he committed suicide to avoid capture and execution.

March 20, 2007 Posted by | buddhism, culture, event, festival, fire festival, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, mt. kurama, travel, Yoshitsune | , , , | 6 Comments