Obon

August Highlight

The first three of the Gozan no Okuribi fires.

Obon is an ancient Buddhist rite to honour the spirits of the ancestors. It is believed that ones forefathers come to visit their former homes and thus, many people return there as well to pay their respects at the family grave. This makes Obon one of the busiest travel seasons in Japan, because even though Obon is not an official national holiday, many companies close and allow their employees a few days off.

In Kyoto, Obon takes place from the 14th to the 16th August, and it is all about lights and fire. On the first day of Obon, so-called chochin lanterns are lit inside houses or in graveyards as a welcome and guiding light for the homecoming spirits. In the countryside, people sometimes light little straw fires at the entrance gate to their properties to do that, but this is not customary in Kyoto city.

At the Higashi Otani cemetery, each tomb gets their own lantern when people visit their ancestors with offerings of food and sake. At night, the view from the top of the hill filled with lanterns down to the brightly lit inner city of Kyoto is spectacular.

The view from Higashi Otani cemetery over Kyoto.

Manto-Kuyo Ceremonies

Many temples hold special ceremonies called sento-kuyo or manto-kuyo (1000 or 10000 lights). People are invited to light candles or lanterns as prayer offerings to the Buddha and in remembrance of those who have passed away.

Daigo-ji Temple

August 5th, from sunset to 21:00

Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple

August 8th - 10th from 20:00 (light-up) and August 16th from 18:00 (send-off)

Of course, it is always a good idea not to let the spirits linger for too long and to send them back to the land of the dead again eventually. Once more, this is done by lighting lanterns and fires, and in this, Kyoto overshadows all of Japan with the Gozan no Okuribi fires.

Gozan no Okuribi

August 16th, from 20:00

Literally translated, Gozan no Okuribi means 5 mountains sending fire, but the ceremony is better known as the Daimonji. On five of the mountains surrounding Kyoto, huge bonfires in the shapes of Chinese characters and pictograms are lit to send the ancestral spirits off. The fires are lit in 5 minute intervals and burn for about 20 minutes each.

The first fire to be lit is the Dai - a character meaning great or large - on Mount Daimonji at 20:00. This is the most popular of the bonfires, and since it can be seen from all of Kamogamo river north of Sanjo bridge, it is very easy to get to. The best viewing spots for the Dai are at Demachiyanagi, which means it is very crowded there with Japanese wearing their yukata and sometimes even holding a picnic with food and sake.

The large Dai as viewed from Demachiyanagi.

The characters Myo-ho (wondrous Dharma) are lit at 20:05 on Mount Mantoro and Mont Daikokuten, respectively. The best viewing spots for them are at the Takano river north of Takano bridge and Kitayama dori near Notre Dame University.

At 20:10 follows the Funagata in the shape of a boat, on Mount Funayama. It can be admired from Kitayama dori again, this time north-west of Kitayama bridge is good.

The Hidari-dai, a smaller dai character located on Mount Okita is lit at 20:15 and can best be seen from Nishioji dori near Kinkakuji.

At 20:20 the final Toriigata bonfire in the shape of a shrine gate is lit Mount Mandara in Arashiyama and can be best seen from Matsuobashi bridge and Hirosawa-no-ike pond.

Since the fires are located on the mountains surrounding the city, there is no single point from which all five can be seen. Some hotels in town offer special Daimonji viewing tickets for their roof terraces, however, from the top of Funaokayama Park near Kitaoji dori, the first four bonfires can be viewed for free. For the more adventurous, it may be possible - with a little planning and some sort of transporation - to catch the first three fires from the places mentioned above in a single evening.

After the fires have gone out, there is one more, final Obon event: from 19:00 - 21:00 at the Togetsu-kyo Bridge at Nakanoshima Park in Arashiyama, paper lanterns are floated on the river, taking the souls of the ancestors with them to the ocean and back to the realm of the dead. Why don’t you go there and float your own in remembrance of your loved ones?