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Daimonji Festival

It always makes a trip more special for me when I’m able to participate in or spectate at a festival or local event, be it a cultural or sporting.

A few years back I happened to be in Kyoto at the time of the famous Gozan no Okuribi (五山送り火), more usually (and easily) known as Daimonji (大文字).  This is a Kyoto celebration that takes place on 16 August every year, marking the end  of the O-Bon festival.

It is said that the spirits of deceased ancestors visit this world during O-Bon and on 16th August, five giant bonfires, each with a distinctive shape, are lit on the mountains surrounding the city to celebrate their return to the spirit world.  These “send-off fires”, Okuribi (送り火), are what gives the festival its official title.

The origins of the festival are obscure, but it is believed to be ancient. The oldest description of the Okuribi event appears in the diary of court noble Funabashi Hidekata in 1603, where it says that he went to Kamogawa river to see the bonfires on the mountains.

Two of the bonfires are in the shape of the kanji for large (daimonji), hence the festival’s more common name.

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There is a strict pattern to the shape and timings of the bonfires:

  • Daimonji (大文字), the character meaning “large”, on Daimonji-Yama/Higashi-Yama, Nyoigatake at 8:00PM
  • Myō/Hō (妙・法), the characters meaning “wondrous dharma” (referring to Buddhist teachings) on Matsugasaki, Nishi-Yama/Higashi-Yama at 8:10PM
  • Funagata (舟形), the shape of a boat, on Nishigamo, Funa-Yama at 8:15PM
  • Hidari Daimonji (左大文字), again, the character meaning “large”, on Daihoku-San, Hidaridaimonji-San at 8:15PM
  • Toriigata (鳥居形), the shape of a torii or shrine gate, on Toriimoto, Mandara-San at 8:20PM

The most famous—and the first to be lit—is the character dai (大), on Kyoto’s Daimonji-yama.

Hundreds of people gather at viewing points to watch (and photograph, of course) the spectacle.

Linked to the Daily Prompt: Celebration.

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