There’s one, special date in January, when a night over an ancient town Nara is bright as a day. It’s because of Wakakusa Mountain, which every year is set on fire to commemorate what happened in the 18th century. What was the beginning of the burning mountain tradition and how does the festival look like nowadays?
Wakakusa Yamayaki – what does it mean?
I f we want to write “Wakakusa Mountain” in Japanese characters, we would write 若草山. The last symbol “山” represents a mountain (yama), and it’s one of the first kanji the Japanese children learn in their early education. Two other characters, which stand for the name of the mountain (Wakakusa) mean 若 = young, and 草 = grass. So it’s a Mountain of a Young Grass 🙂
How about the other part – Yamayaki? We already know that yama (山) means a mountain. So what yaki means? If you happened to be in Japan, you have surely tried yakitori – a grilled chicken, or tayaki – a red bean cake in the shape of a grilled fish. Are the Japanese grilling Wakakusa mountain? Well, not really – yaki (焼き) can also mean “controlled burning”, and this is what festival is all about!
Every year the festival is organized by two Buddhist temples: Tōdai-ji & Kōfuku-ji, and one Shintō shrine – Kasuga Taisha. All of them are located in the Nara Park, the most popular tourist spot in Nara.
Nara Park is famous mainly because of 1500 spotted deer living there. Tourist usually feed them with sembei (senbei) – a special rice crackers, which you can buy at the stalls in the park. The deer are half-wild, so sometimes they can attack (bite, kick, push) people, if they spot someone having sembei or other food and not sharing with them. That’s why taking your lunch to the Nara Park is usually a bad idea 😉
The Nara Park is located on the East side of the city. If you pass the park, you will get to the borders of the old, primeval forest Kasugayama. The trees growing there are sacred, and people are forbidden to enter the forest for more than one thousand years. What’s surprising, the sacred forest grows on the foothill of the Wakakusa mountain, which every year is set on fire.
Two Temples and a Shrine
The temples, which organizes Wakakusa Yamayaki are extraordinarily beautiful and old. Tōdai-ji is a home of the famous Great Buddha form Nara, and it’s also the biggest wooden builidng in the world. The Great Buddha is located in Daibutsu-den, which you can see below. By the way – I took this photos during my first trip to Japan in 2013. Back then I thought that it will be my first and only time in Japan. It’s funny, because now I’m visiting the Land of the Rising Sun quite often! 🙂
Another temple is Kōfuku-ji (興福寺).
It used to be a private temple of the noble Fujiwara family.
The last one is a shrine called Kasuga Taisha (春日大社).
It’s particularly famous because of the long lines of lanterns.
How did the festival start?
There are two theories about the origin of the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival. The first one says that a wild boars were bothering the neighboring with the Wakakusa mountain temples and shrines. To prevent them from coming back, people decided to destroy their habitat and set the Wakakusa mountain on fire.
The second theory is based on the story of the land claims. In 1760 two Buddhist temples: Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji claimed the Wakakusa mountain as their property. The talks between temples to settle down the issue didn’t bring any results, so a third party – neutral Shinto shrine (Kasuga Taisha) was included in the talks as a mediator. Shinto priests probably weren’t very skilled in crisis management. The talks broke down once again and the Wakakusa mountain was set on fire.
Celebrating Wakakusa Yamayaki
The festival of burning the mountain is celebrated once a year on the 4th Saturday of January. This year the festival starts today, on 28 of January. Sometimes, in case of a really bad weather conditions, the event may be postponed to other date.
The festival starts around the noon. The foothill of Wakakusa become a playground for competitions and activities for minors. The most famous one is a senbei crackers throwing competition. Before 5 PM a procession of people involved in the lightening the mountain on fire departs form the Kasuga Taisha shrine toward the mountain. The procession carries “a sacred fire”, which will be used to lighten a huge bonfire on the hillside of Wakakusa. The procession is led by the Kasuga’s priests and it makes several stops in local shrines before reaching the Wakakusa mountain. Around half past 5 PM the procession arrives on the place and a sacred bonfire is being lit. In the meantime the foothill is filled with participants of the festival. There’s a special barrier restricting access to the public for the safety reasons.
At quarter past 6 PM a firework show is held for about 15 minutes. Afterwards, the fire from the bonfire is used to lit the special torches. Around 300 firefighters volunteer each year to light up the mountain. They cross the barrier and with the use of torches with sacred fire they light up old, dry grass growing on Wakakusa.
It usually takes half an hour to one hour to burn the mountain’s grass completely. Of course it depends on the weather and other conditions. Last year it was raining whole day, the grass was really wet, and we didn’t manage to burn the whole mountain until the early morning. The official part of the festival was over and I returned to my hostel, but the next day I saw the Wakakusa mountain all in black, so the firefighters probably worked all night to have the job done properly. It’s so Japanese… 😉
The magic of fire
There’s a proverb saying, that people may not remember exactly what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel. What I remember the most from my Wakakusa Yamayaki in 2016 was the incredible atmosphere of the festival. The view of a huge fire, crowds of cheerful people and an energetic Japanese taiko drum concert (see it here) were contrasting from the rainy weather and gloomy winter evening. That was incredible! I felt I could run and shout: Yes, let’s burn it all!!! It was like a total madness. I really can’t explain how such things work, but I started to kind of understand why people enjoyed ancient Colosseum fights or medieval public burning at the stake. What has happened to me? Take a look a this movie (with the sound on). Doesn’t it attract you somehow?
Would you like to join Wakakusa Yamayaki next year? 🙂
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