Man writing names on lanterns for toro nagashi © 2014 Jordan Harper. All rights reserved.

Burning mountains

Day 19 – 16 August 2010

One of the things I was most looking forward to on our trip was a chance to experience Obon, a three-day Buddhist festival where many Japanese travel back to the town of their birth to visit their deceased relatives, who for three days each summer come to visit.

The culmination of the festival in most towns and villages is a Tōrō Nagashi (灯籠流し)  or lantern-floating ceremony — where participants write the names of a deceased relative on a lantern before floating it down a river to send their spirit back to the other world. It’s a really quite beautiful thought and a spectacular sight familiar to anyone even only marginally acquainted with Japanese culture.

Its most spectacular incarnation in Kyoto, the city in which we found ourselves, is (arguably) in the picturesque district of Arashiyama (嵐山) to the north-west. In addition to the lanterns, a number of significant kanji are recreated as giant bonfires on the hills around the city, known as Gozan no Okuribi. For around half-an-hour, it seems as though the characters have forced their way out of the mountain rock to glow mysteriously and summon the dead home.

Like all good festivals, there was plenty of food and drink to keep everyone occupied (including delicious marinated and grilled squid steaks on sticks); meanwhile there was quite a brisk trade being done by a group of monks at the riverside, writing names on the lanterns before they were taken to the river’s edge and dispatched to the afterlife for another year…

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