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Gozan no Okuribi (Mountain Bon Fire)


What is Gozan no Okuribi?
Gozan no Okuribi is a traditional event that takes place in Kyoto during the Obon Festival (Festival of the Ancestors) on August 16 every year. On each of the five mountains that surround the city, giant bonfires are set alight. Three of the fires are in the shape of kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese writing. These bonfires are known individually as "Daimonji", "Hidari Daimonji", and "Myo-hou". The other two fires are in the shapes of a boat and a Shinto shrine gate respectively and are called the "Funagata" and "Toriigata".
There are a number of explanations about the origins of Gozan no Okuribi. The festival has long been close to the hearts of the people of Kyoto and is said to have roots in the 13th century. This tradition is tied together with beliefs surrounding memorial services for departed ancestors on August 15 known as Obon Festival. The Okuribi were meant to guide the souls of the ancestors who return to this world during the Obon period back to the world beyond. The Okuribi are also believed to protect against evil. In addition, drinking water which reflects the light of the Gozan no Okuribi is believed to prevent paralysis.
Burning wood strips of cedar known as "Gomagi" in the torches of the Okuribi is a way of praying. Along with the Aoi Matsuri (The Hollyhock Festival), the Gion Festival, and Jidai Matsuri (The Parade of Eras), the Gozan no Okuribi is called one of the four great events of Kyoto.
Daimonji (Nyoigatake, Daimonji Mountain)

Daimonji is the first of the five mountains to be set alight with the kanji character symbolizing "Large" on Nyoigatake (Daimonji Mountain). There are various explanations about the origin of these bonfires, but it is said that the tradition began between three and five hundred years ago. On the day that the Okuribi are set alight, a Buddhist memorial service is held on the mountain at Kobo-Taishi-Do.

*Entrance to any part of the mountain by general sightseers is forbidden.
Location: Nyoigatake (Daimonji Mountain)
Time of Lighting: 8pm (Fires remain lit for 30 minutes)
Gomagi Accepted: From noon on August 15 to the afternoon on August 16. In front of Ginkaku-ji Temple.
Viewing Spots:
* Banks of the Kamogawa River (from Marutamachi to Miso no Bashi)
* In front of Doshisha University's Kanbaikan Building

Myo-Hou (Mount Mandoro and Mount Daikokuten)

The kanji character "Myo" is set alight on Mount Mandoro and the kanji character "Hou" is set alight on Mount Daikokuten, but this pair is counted as one. The kanji are thought to originate from the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism. On the 15 and 16 of August the Obon dance known as Sashi Odori, said to be the oldest Obon dance in Japan, is performed at nearby Yusenji Temple.

*Entrance to any part of the mountain by general sightseers is forbidden.
Location: Mandoro Yama (Mount Mandoro) and Daikokuten Yama (Mount Daikokuten)
Time of Lighting: 8:10 pm (Fires remain lit for 30 minutes)
Viewing Spots:
* "Myo" can be seen from Kitayama Street near Matsugasaki Station on the Karasuma Subway Line
* "Hou" can be seen from Kitano Kyohoku
The characters can be seen from up close from Takaragaike Driving School. You can see both characters while walking along Kitayama Street.
Please direct inquiries to 075-343-6655 (Kyoto City Tourism Information Office)

Funa-gata (Mount Funa Nishigamo)

The Funa-gata is a bonfire in the shape of a boat. 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 ringing of a bell at Saiho-ji Temple is the signal to light this bonfire. A traditional Buddhist dance known as "Rokusai Nenbutsu" (Lion Dance) is held at the temple after the fires have died. The Rokusai Nenbutsu is well known part of Kyoto's Obon Festival.

*Entrance to any part of the mountain by general sightseers is forbidden.
Location: Nishigamo Funayama (Mount Funa Nishigamo)
Time of Lighting: 8:15 pm (Fires remain lit for 30 minutes)
Gomagi (Wooden Strips for Ritual Burning) Accepted: August 4-15 8 am-4 pm, August 16 8 am-10 am. In front of Saiho-ji Temple.
Viewing Spots: Around Miso no Bashi Bridge.

Hidari Daimonji (Mount Okita)

This character is called Hidari (left) Daimonji because of its position to the left of the Daimonji when seen from the heaven. It is also said to be centered when viewed from the Imperial Palace. Though the Daimonji, Funa-gata, and Ho-myoji are older than the Hidari Daimonji, the Hidari Daimonji is still said to have a history longer than 300 years old. This Okuribi is known in part for its stirring torch procession.

*Entrance to any part of the mountain by general sightseers is forbidden.
Location: Okitayama (Mount Okita)
Time of Lighting: 8:15 pm (Fires remain lit for 30 minutes)
Gomagi (Wooden Strips for Ritual Burning) Accepted:
* August 15 9 am - noon. In front of Kinkaku-ji Temple.
* August 16 7 am - noon. In front of Kinkaku-ji Temple.
 Viewing spots: Nishi-oji Street

Torii-gata (Mount Mandara)

This image of a torii, or Shinto shrine gate, was modeled after those on the approach to Atago Yama (Mount Atago). The people who set off the Okuribi run with torches lit from the parent fire and light all the fire beds of the Torii-gata at once. There is a special method of ignition here which involves placing the flames in iron fire beds. There are said to be 108 fire beds in Buddhism that are said to burn away the worldly desires. The Torii-gata is called the most beautiful and stirring of the Okuribi.

*Entrance to any part of the mountain by general sightseers is forbidden.
Location: Mandara Yama (Mount Mandara)
Time of Lighting: 8:20 pm (Fires remain lit for 30 minutes)
Gomagi (Wooden Strips for Ritual Burning)Accepted:
* August 13-15 10 am - 4 pm. In front of Adashino-Nenbutsu-ji Temple.
* August 16 9 am - 15 pm . In front of Adashino-Nenbutsu-ji Temple.
Viewing Spots: Matsuo-bashi Bridge, Hirosawa no ike Pond

Okuribi (Mountain Bon Fire) Episodes

Why is the Chinese character for "Large" used as one of the Oburibi? Where did the Okuribi come from?
There are various legends, but earth, water, wind, and fire were thought to be the main elements comprising the world and are said to express the idea that when our ancestors pass away they return to those elements.
The characters for Myo and Ho are a part of the teachings of a temple at the foot of the mountain of those characters.
The torii, or shrine gate, is a picture of itself.
The Go-zan no Okuribi was thus related to the ancestor veneration rituals of Japanese religion.

What are the origins of the Okuribi?
There are various legend, but there seems to be no definitive answer yet. According to one story, in the middle of the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490)  created the Okuribi for one of his children who died prematurely. Today, Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion), built by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, lies at the foot of Daimonji mountain. Some argue these remains of the Ashikaga Shogunate (i.e. Ginkaku-ji) face the Okuribi directly.
Others believe the Gozan no Okuribi date from the spread of Buddhism through the society during Muromachi Period. This is the most generally accepted story.
In recent years old documents concerning the Okuribi have been discovered that state that Daimonji Mountain was part of the territory of Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion). Therefore, the number of people in favor of the Ashikaga Shogun story, has been increasing these days.

The Tobacco Sign on Daimonji Mountain
In the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912) a man known as Kichibei Murai (1864-1926) tried his hand in the fledgling tobacco industry. He would eventually become known as the "Tobacco King of the East".
In 1895, at the time of 4th Domestic Industrial Exposition held in Okazaki, Murai is said to have raised a giant sign promoting tobacco on Mount Daimonji. To act as if the Okuribi were made of tobacco was, to say the least, a bold move. Accounts say the sign was removed several years later.

The Okuribi have also been set alight on other special occasions.
From the Meiji Period onward, lighting the Okuribi was a link in some celebrations.
- April 8, 1890 Daimonji was lit to celebrate the construction of Biwako Canal.
- May 9, 1981 All the mountains were lit when the Prince of Russia visits Kyoto.
- May 13, 1895 After the end of the First Sino-Japanese War, when the emperor of Japan visited Kyoto, three kanji meaning "celebrating peace" were lit.
- October 27, 1898 Daimonji was lit to celebrate Emperor Taisho's stay in Kyoto.
- December 31, 2000 All the mountains were lit to commemorate the beginning of the 21st century in Kyoto.

Making Wishes to the Okuribi

* Offering Gomagi
The Gomagi (Wooden Strips for Ritual Burning) used in the Okuribi have the name, age, any illnesses or complaints that a person has written upon them and are used first to start the fires on the fire grates. They are said to be talismans against bad luck and illness. Gomagi are accepted the day before the fires in front of Kinkaku-ji Temple (Daimonji), Adashi no Nenbutsu-ji Temple (Funagata), and Nishi-gamo/Shinosho of the Saiho-ji Temple. Dates and times differ by location. 
* It is said your wishes will come true if you tilt a cup of sake so that it reflects the Okuribi on the surface of your drink. It is also said that you will live a healthy life free of illness.
* Some say that if you look at the Okuribi through a hole cut through an eggplant you will not suffer from illnesses of the eye.
* It is said that if you rise early the next morning and wrap the charcoal cinders in high-grade Japanese paper, known as "Hoshogami", and tie them together with a paper ribbon known as "Mizuhiki" and hang this in your home, it will become an amulet that protects against evil, danger, and theft.
On the path to Ginkaku-ji Temple there is said to be used charcoal amulets hanging to this day. There is also an oral tradition that says if you distil the charcoal and drink it, your stomach pains will be cured and you will be protected from illness.

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