Every year on August 16th, “Gozan no Okuribi (five giant bonfires lit on mountains)” is held in Kyoto. Gozan no Okuribi is a ritual to light giant bonfires on five mountains to guide the spirits of the dead ancestors, which came back to earth on obon, back to the other world. City lights go off while five bonfires from east to west, in the order of “大(meaning: large or great)”, “妙法(wondrous dharma)”, “船の形(the shape of a boat)”, “大(large or great)” and “鳥居の形(the shape of a torii or shrine gate)”, are lit up one by one. Bonfires keep burning quietly for about an hour, and the city of Kyoto is filled with the mystical atmosphere during the event.
Gozan no Okuribi
“大(daimonji, large or great)” (Higashiyama Nyoigadake)
First, gomagi (homa sticks on which prayers are written), burning material of okuribi (bonfire), is carried to the mountain peak in the afternoon on 16th.
A sacred light is offered in Kobo Daishido on the mountain top on 16th, and hannya shingyo (the heart sutra) is chanted by monks. After that, a sacred light is moved to the master fire bed, and by a signal, okuribi is lit at once.
Scheduled time for lighting a fire: 20:00
Seen best from: Kamogawa (river) embankment
Gomagi reception: In front of Ginkakuji (temple) gate, Gomagi 300yen, August 15th 12:00-20:00, August 16th 6:00-14:00
“妙 法(myo ho, wondrous dharma)” (“妙” Matsugazaki Nishiyama, “法” Higashiyama)
It is said that “妙(myo)” was written by Nichijo, the disciple learned from Nichiren’s original disciple, and “法” by Nichiryo. On the mountain of “妙(myo)”, monks chant a sutra while igniting a fire. Also on 16th, “daimoku odori(dance)” as well as “sashi odori(dance)” are held in Yusenji (temple) at foot of the mountain for about an hour from 21:00, when okuribi is finished.
Scheduled time for lighting a fire: 20:05
Seen best from: “妙(myo)” Kitayama-dori (around Notre Dome Junior & Senior High School), “法(ho)” Takanogawa (river) embankment (Takanobashi kita, or north of Takano bridge)
Gomagi receotion: N/A
“船形(funagata, the shape of a boat)” Mandoro (Nishigamofuneyama)
From very early in the morning on 16th split firewood is carried to the mountain peak, preparation for lighting a fire is conducted, and with the sound of the bell from Saihoji (temple) at foot of the mountain as a signal, okuribi on the mountain top is lit. After okuribi is finished, the head priest chants a sutra and rokusai nenbutsu (the Buddhist dance to the two percussion instruments, a bell and a drum to honor the ancestors) by Saihoji Rokusai Nenbutsu Preservation Society members is held in Saihoji.
Schedule time for lighting a fire: 20:10
Seen best from: Kitayama-dori (Northwest of Kitayama Ohashi)
Gomagi reception: In front of Saihoji (temple) gate, Gomagi 300yen, From 3rd to 15th 8:00-16:00, 16th 7:00-10:00
“大(dai, large or great)” Hidari(left) Daimonji (Okitayama)
Hidari daimonji is said to have started after daimonji, myo ho and funagata, and there were times they added one stroke to the letter to make it “天(ten, or heaven)”. Around 19:00 on 16th, a fire is lit on gomagi on the master fire bed in Houonji (temple) and the ignition memorial service is held. The fire is then moved to light 1 new torch, 40 hand torches and then 25 gate fire are lit at once. After that, the fire is carried to the mountain peak to light okuribi located there.
Schedule time for lighting a fire: 20:15
Seen best from: Nishioji-dori (Saiin to Kinkakuji)
Gomagi reception: In front of Kinkakuji (temple) gate, Gomagi 300yen, 15th 9:00-15:00, 16th 7:00-14:00
“鳥居形(torii gata, the shape of a torii or shrine gate)” torch (Mandarayama)
Around 8:00 on 16th, torches are carried from foot of the mountain to the mountain peak, and at around 16:00 the ignition preparation is conducted. Since pinewood with pine resin is used, the fire is more orange-colored compared to those in other mountains. Also, they do not make a wooden frame like other mountains but put torches directly, so they run from the master fire bed to each fire bed with a torch in their hand. This is called “higa hashiru (fire is running)”.
Scheduled time for lighting a fire: 20:20
Seen best from: Matsuobashi (bridge), Hirosawanoike (pond) and such
Gomagi reception: Adashinonenbutsuji (temple) parking space, Gomagi 300yen, 13th to 15th 10:00-16:00, 16th 9:00-15:00
*What is gomagi reception?
You can write your “prayer” on a specially-made stick called gomagi, and burn it to pray to Buddha.
Gomagi for okuribi can be purchased and dedicated by anyone; you don’t have to be from Kyoto, tourists can do it too. The sight of tourists who came to Ginkakuji or Kinkakuji writing on gomagi, following instructions of the preservation society is often spotted. It is said that if you write your name and the chronic illness/disease you have on gomagi and burn it on the fire bed, it will be cured. Gomagi can be purchased for 300 yen each. It seems that these days many foreign tourists participate too!
Map of recommended spots to watch Gozan no Okuribi
Gozan no Okuribi is held in wide areas of the city of Kyoto, and it is difficult to watch every one of them at once.
Being able to watch all of them means you will be far away from each okuribi; it would be better to choose the one you wish to watch and be closer to the chosen mountain.
They say more than 100,000 people come to watch Gozan no Okuribi even on weekdays, and the city of Kyoto is crowded with people.
When you visit not knowing where to go, it will be hard to move around, find a great spot to watch the fire, while the event only lasts an hour. Thorough prep is a must for those who wish to watch daimonji in Kyoto!!