Kyoto’s Summer Tradition – Okuribi Bonfire

If you happen to be in Kyoto on August 16th, there is a traditional event I’d like you to check out – Gozan Okuribi.
Gozan Okuribi is basically a series of bonfires on five different mountains in Kyoto: 大(big) (two mountains show this one), 法 (law), 妙(wonder), shape of a ship and Torii Gate.(Sorry if your computer couldn’t read the Chinese characters). This is a religious event where the ancestors’ spirits who came back to this world for a short period of time are sent back to another world. This event is called Obon and it happens at August 13th – 15th.

There will be four different characters (two of them are shapes) on the mountains. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to see all of them in one night, because this lasts only 30 minutes and these mountains are scattered. Unless you stay or reserve a restaurant at Hotel Okura, I recommend you stick to one or two spots.

Check out the map, which might help you decide which mountain(s) you will target. On this map, you can see what time the bonfires are lit and the best spots to see them.

Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Map
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Map

Unfortunately the origin of the bonfire event is not clear. So I’ll list the origins which I think are more likely.

大: It seemed that Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa started this event to commemorate his son Yoshihisa’s death. The shape was chosen by a preacher from Sokokuji Temple, Osen Keisan who at the time was in Ginkakuji Temple.

妙 法: Both are related to Buddhism and designed by two different preachers; Nichizo (妙) at the end of the Kamrakura period (1185-1333), and Nichiryo in the Edo period (1603-1868).

The shape of a ship: The preacher who opened Saihoji Temple prayed to calm the ocean when his ship that was on the way back from China was threatened by a storm. It worked and he invited the Buddha Amida, whose back has a ship-like shape, to Saihoji Temple afterwords. Then he decided to use that shape for the bonfire.

大 on the left: Unknown. But it started in the middle of Edo period (1603-1868).

The shape of Torii gate: The origin of this shape was copied from Atago Shrine’s Torii gate.