In Japan, Obon, the Buddhist celebration devoted to honoring the spirits of the dead, usually takes place between July and August. It is a time when many Japanese return to their furusato (hometown) to visit family and participate in local traditions and festivals.
One such festival is known as the Gozan no Okuribi (五山送り火), or Daimonji (大文字), which takes place in Kyoto on August 16. This is the culmination of the Obon celebrations during which time five enormous bonfires are lit in the mountains surrounding Kyoto. It signifies the time when the spirits of deceased family members return to the spirit world after visiting the world of the living during Obon.
Beginning at 8:00 PM on August 16, giant bonfires are lit, each with a distinctive shape. Three of the fires form giant kanji characters, while two form shapes. The characters and their locations have specific meanings.
The most famous and the first to be lit is the character Dai (大) meaning “large” or “great”, on Mount Daimonji. The other four fires are lit at five to ten-minute intervals, and by 8:30 PM, all the characters/shapes can be seen. Each bonfire lasts for 30 minutes.
The second fire lit at 8:10 PM is Myoho (妙・法) meaning “mysterious law.” You may have heard the mantra “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” chanted by Japanese Buddhists. The kanji character “Myo” is set ablaze on Mount Mandoro and the kanji character “Ho” is set flaming on Mount Daikokuten, but the pair are counted as one.
At 8:15 PM, the third fire, Funagata (舟形), in the shape of a boat is lit on Mount Funa Nishigamo. The ringing of a bell at Saihoji Temple is the signal to light this bonfire. The bow of this boat, also known as the Spirit Ship, is said to point toward the Buddhist Western Paradise of the Pure Land.
The next bonfire forms Hidari Daimonji (左大文字), also lit at 8:15 PM on Mount Okita. The character “Dai” means “large” or “great” as previously discussed and it is called Hidari (left) Daimonji because of its position when viewed from heaven.
Finally, the last bonfire is lit on Mount Mandara at 8:20 PM. This is the Torigata (鳥居形), in the shape of a tori or shrine gate.
The matsuri (festival) is organized by the Five-Mountain Daimonji Preservation Committee with some assistance from the Kyoto municipal government. The origin of the event is unclear these days, but some say it dates back to the Edo era.
It is an awe inspiring spectacle to behold and yet another way to experience Japanese culture and its many mysteries.