Send-off Bonfires of Five Mountains (五山送り火)
The Send-off Bonfires of Five Mountains (Gozan no Okuribi) refers to the annual bonfires lit at various 5 locations including Nyoigatake (Mt. Nyoi known as Mt. Daimonji) on August 16 in Kyoto City. It is an esoteric Buddhism festival.
It is also referred to as 'Daimonji no Okuribi (a ceremonial bonfire of Daimonji letter).'
Many of the residents in the area around Mt. Daimonji (Mt. Nyoigatake) refer to that mountain as 'Daimonji-san' with an honorific to show their respect and to give it a distinction from other mountains from long ago.
It is a Kyoto's popular traditional event that lights up the night sky of Kyoto. It is designated as one of the four major events along with the Aoi-matsuri Festival, Gion Festival and Jidai Matsuri.
On August 16 every year, the bonfires will begin as follows:
The letter 'dai (大, big)' on (Mt. Nyoigatake), Jodo-ji Temple, Sakyo Ward is ignited at 20:00.
The letters 'Myo (妙, excellent)' and 'Hou (法, dharma)' on Mt. Nishi-yama and Mt. Higashi-yama, respectively, in Matsugasaki, Sakyo Ward are ignited at 20:10.
The 'Hidari-Daimonji' (this term is used to distinguish from 'Daimonji') bonfire in the shape of the letter 'dai (big)' on Mt. Hidari Daimonji-yama, Okitayama, Kita Ward is ignited at 20:15.
The 'Toriigata (shrine gate shape)' bonfire on Mt. Mandara-yama, Saga Toriimoto, Ukyo Wardi s ignited at 20:20.
Blazing flames rising from these foregoing 5 mountains are supposed to take spirits of the departed known as 'Oshorai-san (spirit)' to the afterlife. It is said that there used to be 10 mountains including "Ichi ('一' meaning the number 'one')" in Narutaki and "I ('い,' the 2nd letters of hiragana)" in Ichihara that organized the okuribi (ceremonial bonfire) but, since the number of the mountains decreased to the present 5 after World War 2, this name began to be used.
With respect to the origin of okuribi, there are various theories whereby some argue that it started in the Heian Period, whereas, others argue that it started in the Edo Period, but there is no official record to substantiate the genesis of okuribi to date.
Nevertheless, authenticity of these theories is not known.
One of the theories is that Kukai burnt a Goma (holy fire) in the shape of the letter 'Dai (big),' which represents human body to drive plague off ("Topography of Yoshufushi" and "Hinami-kiji" (a guidebook of annual events in Kyoto and its surrounding area).
The other theory is that Seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians") Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA had Daimonji no Okuribi burnt to pray for the repose of the soul of his deceased son Yoshihisa ASHIKAGA. According to the second theory, it is said that the letter of Migi-daimonji (the right Daimonji) was designed by Yoshimasa's vassal Kamon HAGA based on the handwriting of Keisan OSEN who was a priest at Shokoku-ji Temple ("Meika Iko" (literary remains of Meika UNO) and "Topography of Sanshu-Meisekishi").
The writer was a court noble and calligrapher Nobutada KONOE (also known as Sanmyakuin) who was referred to as one of the three greatest penmen of the time ("Annaisha" (The Guide)).
It became popular as an event for Urabon (Feast of Lanterns) between 1530's and 1560's.
Location: Nanamawari-cho, Jodo-ji Temple, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City
Name of the mountain: Mt. Daimonji-yama (also known as Mt. Nyoigatake)
Number of fire beds: 75
Size: The first stroke is 80m long with 19 fire beds, the second stroke is 160m long with 29 fire beds and the third stroke is 120m long with 27 fire beds
The cluster of summits in the area was originally referred to as 'Nyoigatake') but, today, the summit at the front on the west side (466m) where the daimonji is located is called 'Daimonji-yama' and the main highest summit (474m) is called 'Nyoigatake.'
To distinguish it from 'Hidari-daimonji,' it is specifically referred to as 'Migi-daimonji' or 'Daimonji on the right.'
Of the five, it is the only mountain that people are allowed to climb freely as a rule. Access to Daimonji is via the main route starting on the north side of Jisho-ji (Ginkaku-ji) Temple which is also used for the okuribi.
The fire beds consist of the base built by stacking trees with Taimatsu (torches) driven into the top of it. This method is being used at all other mountains except for the 'Torii-gata' bonfire.
When the okuribi was suspended during the World War II, the local residents (including the pupils at Daisan Kinrin Elementary School) climbed the mountain early in the morning wearing white tops to form a human letter 'Dai' instead.
Myoho (Excellent Methods)
Location: (Myo): Matsugasaki Nishiyama, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City and (Ho): Matsugasaki Higashiyama, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City
Name of the mountain: (Myo) Mt. Nishi-yama (133m) and (Ho) Mt. Higashi-yama (187m).
Together, they are also known as 'Myoho-zan (Mt. Myoho).'
Number of fire beds: (Myo) 103 and (Ho) 63
Size: Nearly 100m and 80m at the longest part for (Myo) and (Ho), respectively.
While there are two letters in two mountains, it is regarded as one letter in one mountain.
According to a temple's lore at Yusen-ji Temple, when the village people of Matsugasaki converted their faith to the Hokke sect, Nichizo wrote the letter 'Myo' on Nishiyama while Nichiryo who was at Daimyo-ji Temple wrote the letter 'Ho' on Higashiyama.
When facing these letters, 'Myo' is situated on the left-hand side of 'Ho' and hence it is considered that 'Myo' came into existence first.
For the fire beds of 'Myo,' the responsibility is assumed by township on a rotation basis, whereas, for 'Ho,' each family is assigned to be in charge of a specific fire bed.
The preservation society is made up by the supporters of Yusen-ji Temple. The membership is by succession.
Number of fire beds: 79
Size: Approximately 130m long and 200m wide.
The preservation society is made up by the supporters of Saiho-ji Temple. The membership is by succession.
It is said that the boat-shape originated from a fable in which, in 847, when the founder of Saiho-ji Temple Jikaku Daishi Ennin was caught in a rainstorm on his way home from Tang he chanted Myogo (the name of Buddha) saying, 'Namu Amida Budda' and was able to return to Japan safely.
Location: Okitayama Kagamiishi-cho, Kita Ward, Kyoto City
Name of the mountain: Mt. Hidari Daimonji-yama
Number of fire beds: 53
Size: The first stroke is 48m long, the second stroke is 68m long and the third stroke is 59m long
The preservation society is made up with the supporters of Hoon-ji Temple
The membership is by succession.
The number of fire beds was increased by 10 in 1960.
Torii-gata (Shrine Gate Shape)
Location: Ikkahyo-cho, Saga-torii-moto, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto City
Name of the mountain: Mt. Mandara-yama (also known as Mt. Mantoro-yama or Mt. Senoji-yama)
Number of fire beds: 108
Size: 76m long and 72m wide
Unlike the other mountains, this is the only preservation society that is made up of volunteers and not the supporters of the temple.
Due to pine trees with pine resin used, color of the flames is close to orange which is a little different from that of the other mountains.
Unlike the other mountains, the fire beds for this bonfire are not built with trees but Taimatsu (torches) are driven directly into the ground.
Since people light Taimatsu torches at Oya-hidoko (the master fire bed) and run to their respective fire bed holding a lit torch, this process is also referred to as the 'running fire.'
Among the bonfires that used to exist, there was a one with a design delineating a bamboo pole with bells at its end (which was referred to as 'bells at the tip of bamboo' or 'a pole with bells') and not a letter (at an unknown location).
Gion-matsuri Festival and Daimonji were banned between 1868 and 1877.
Between 1943 and 1945 during the World War II, the okuribi was suspended due to various regulations including the blackout order.
Today, fire beds are built with Oya stone, with firewood being stacked on the top of it, and the firewood is lit (except for the Torii-gata bonfire).
Since the Meiji era, the bonfires have been burnt several times during the season other than summer on various occasions including the event to celebrate Japan's victory. Most recently, the bonfire was lit on all of the five mountains on December 31, 2000.
In the evening of September 13, 2003, with the Hanshin Tigers (one of the professional baseball teams in Japan) winning the first league title after 18 years being imminent, a group of their fans climbed Mt. Daimonji to draw the HT logo (the Hanshin Tigers logo) by using their flashlights.
To prevent any obstructions of view to landmarks, there are various regulations applicable to architectural structures in accordance with Kyoto Chobo Keikan Sosei Jorei (ordinance of creating scenery in Kyoto).