On the 16th of August the «Gozan no Okuribi» (五山の送り火) event took place in Kyoto where five giant bonfires were lit on mountains surrounding the city. The event is connected to the O-bon festival – a Buddhist custom during which the spirits of deceased family members are said to visit this mortal world. The word Okuribi (送り火) can be literally translated as “send-off fire” and carries the meaning of saying goodbye and escorting the spirits back to the afterlife.
Each of the five bonfires actually consist of smaller bonfires which together form a large character or a picture. They are lit at different intervals starting from the most famous of them all, the “dai” character.
- The “dai” (大) at Daimonji mountain. In connection to Okuribi, this character represents the person, or individual (lit at 20:00 hours).
- The next ones are the characters “Myō” (妙) and “Hō” (法) which refers to Buddhist teachings (marvelous law of Buddha/Lotus sutra) (lit at 20:05).
- Myō-Hō is followed by the “Funagata” (舟形) which carries the shape of a boat. The meaning is supposedly that the spirits board the boat for their journey back to the afterlife (lit at 20:10).
- The fourth one is another (smaller) “dai” (大) character (lit at 20.15).
- The fifth and last one is shaped as a “torii” gate, the gate found in front of Shinto shrines across Japan. The spirits journey through this final gate and finally enter the afterlife again. (Torii is a Shinto element, but Japanese Buddhism is a very unique form of Buddhism and is often seen mixed together with Shinto elements). The “torii” shape is lit in a different way than the others (by running around and lighting all bonfires from one source instead of lighting each bonfire separately), and has a more orange colour to it as the pine used there contains a lot of resin (lit at 20:20).
The origin of writing characters and pictures in mountains using bonfires is unclear, but some say it could date back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), or even as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185) although there are no official records to support this. Furthermore, because Kyoto once had many bare mountains, some argue that this could have given birth to the tradition.
During the Second World War, the Okuribi was stopped from 1943 to 1945 to not attract bombing airplanes. Instead young students made the shape by using their own bodies dressed in white clothing, and dedicating radio gymnastics to the spirits of those who had fallen in war («eirei» – 英霊).
This year, a member from the Next Japan Travel team (Christoffer) got a closer look at the festival as a volunteering participant at the Daimonji mountain, and got some nice close-up photos.
[icon color=”Extra-Color-1″ animation_speed=”Slow” size=”tiny” icon_size=”” animation_delay=”” image=”fa-link”]For beautiful distance photos of all the bonfires, visit Kyoto Shimbun or Google Image “送り火2015年“.
See you next year!