Gozan no Okuribi: Kyoto’s Festival for Obon

Our view of Okuribi was along the Kamo, in a quiet spot away from people, with a full view of ‘Hou’, the second part of the two hill kanji compound “Myo Hou” meaning “Wondrous Dharma”.

Gozan no Okuribi is an ancient tradition in Kyoto that celebrates the Obon Matsuri, a festival during which it is believed that the spirits of dead family members return to the world to visit the world of the living. The end of the festival is on August 16th, when it is said the spirits return to the world of the afterlife, and the fires that are lit along the mountains of Kyoto are said to be the guideposts to lead them back.

The first bonfire to be lit is called “Daimonji,” and as it is the most recognizable character , it is also the most famous. “Dai” means “great” or “large” and can be associated with the festival’s “large” send-off fires.

The second set of fires to be lit are the Myo-Ho kanji compounds, which mean “Wondrous Dharma” and can only be seen at the same time from specific points in the city. The “Myo” of Myo-Ho is quite close to my work, while Ho is the fire pictured above.

Funagata “ship-shape” is the third mountain to be lit, though it isn’t an actual kanji scrawled into the earth; rather, it is a simplistic drawing of a boat, and considered the ferry that takes the souls from the first and second signal fires, to the final mountain, The Gate.

Hidari Daimonji, “The Left Large Fire” is the fourth mountain, but is also known as the “Little Dai” as it mirrors the image of the first signal fire, despite being smaller. When people say Daimonji, they without a doubt mean the more eastern of the two.

Torrigata is the fifth mountain, the “Shape of a Tori Gate”, and the final destination for the spirits that are being ferried back to the spirit world. Once again, this mountain is not a kanji, but rather in the shape of a tori gate- the tall red arches made famous by Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Pictured above is a Google Map of the area. Okuribi is a very fun event, with the most popular mountain to go see being Daimonji. Most people go to the fork of the Kamo River for viewing the display, but it is my opinion that the other mountains are of equal splendor. This Okuribi, I was able to catch a glimpse of four of the six total fires. Next year I hope to head east, to see the Gate and Little Dai.