Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

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