Kurama Fire Festival (鞍馬の火祭)
The Ujigami (ancient ancestral or tutelary deity of a clan or family) heads for the main gate of the shrine, parading with pine torches and watch fires are made here and there in the town.
It is known as one of the three most eccentric festivals of Kyoto.
In 940, Yuki Myojin (a gracious deity) or Yuki-jinja Shrine, which had been worshiped at the Imperial palace in Heiankyo (the former capital of Japan)s a guardian deity of the northern capital was transferred to Kurama by the Emperor Suzaku in order to appease the social unease caused by big earthquakes and conflicts that took place one after another in those days. At this time, reeds in the Kamo-gawa River (the Yodo-gawa River system) were lit as watch fires along with the road, and the procession during the event reached one kilometer. Impressed with this, residents of Kurama are said to have begun this festival in order to pass down this event and the miraculous efficacy of Yuki Myojin in posterity.
The festival is held on the night of October 22 every year (the same day as Jidai matsuri (Festival of the Ages)).
The Festival Procedure
From six o'clock, an announcement 'Welcome to a Shinto ritual' is made, and pine torches installed at the entrance of each house in the village are lit.
At first mainly children carrying small pine torches, and then grown-ups holding rather huge pine torches parade in the village with shouts, 'sairei ya, sairyo' (meaning festival), and head for otabisho (the resting place for a portable shrine being moved about on its feast day) called 'nakama.'
People holding giant pine torches from each 'nakama' head for the main gate of Kurama-dera Temple around eight o'clock. All the pine torches aqre gathered in front of the gate where theya re later burned away at the bottom of the stone steps.
After the shimenawa (sacred straw festoon) has been cut at the top of the stone steps, Hassho Daimyojin (great gracious deity) first, and then Yuki Daimyojin appear and mikoshi (portable shrine) go down the steps. The approach is so steep that women must used ropes so as not to pick up too much speed.
(It is a traditional belief that the woman that pulls this rope would have an easy delivery, so many young women participate in this event.)
As the portable shrine is taken down, young men wearing only loincloths hang from the poles attached to the portable shrine, which is called "choppen." This is a coming of age ceremony, which is once in a lifetime for the young men in Kurama.
After sacred Shinto music and dancing has been performed, kagura taimatsu (pine torch in the shape of a tea whisk) is carried around in the precincts of the shrine.
(The festival ends around midnight.)
Around two o'clock in the morning, 'Kanko-sai Festival' is held in which the portable shrine is brought back from otabisho to the shrine, which signals the end of the festival.
The community of Kurama is so small that the number of people who can enter the area is limited. In the village, there are spots where it is difficult to stop and watch the festival, especially in front of the main gate of the Kurama-dera Temple where visitors are forbidden to stop, therefore it is difficult to get a good view of the portable shrine coming down the steps (except those who have something to do with ujiko (people under the protection of the local deity) or if you can watch the event from a house in the village.
On this day, as a part of crowd control, traffic on the streets around the main gate of Kurama-dera Temple is regulated by changing the streets into one-way streets for pedestrians. Visitors proceed from Kurama Station, pass the bottom of the stone steps, walk through a one-way street in the direction of Kurama hot spring, across the river running behind the houses at Kurama, and proceed south. They then walk around in the direction of the hot spring to see the festival.
From three p.m. to two a.m., regular vehicles (including bicycles) are forbidden to go into the street between the Kibune entrance and Kurama spring/Momoiwakare in order to control traffic. A bicycle parking lot is available at the Kibune entrance.
The only transportation avaialbe for Kurama during the afternoon of the event is limited to only the Kurama Line Eizan Electric Railway. However, this line is a mountain railway and the train is made up of two carriages, so capacity is limited; while special trains are operated at Demachiyanagi Station, it takes considerable time to get on the train bound for Kurama Station on the evening of the event. This applies to return trips to Kurama Station at night. In addition, they stop selling tickets for Kurama when no more space is available in the village for visitors.
It is belived that a deity dwells in all things related to the festival such as drums, pine torches, and portable shrines, so no-one is allowed to touch them except for those involved in the festival.