Daimonji Festival in Kyoto
Japan's Festival Calendar: August
Daimonji Festival, Kyoto 大文字
One of the most amazing nights of the year in Kyoto's festival rich calendar is Daimonji.
The Daimonji Festival's formal name is Gozan no Okuribi (五山の送り火), which translates as "five mountain send off fire." Everyone in Kyoto, however, refers to the festival as Daimonji.
This day marks the end of the Obon season, which is the time of the year when the souls of one's ancestors return from the other world on their annual visit.
Daimonji - literally "large/great character" - is the annual lighting of massive bonfires of the characters or shapes that have been cut into the mountains that surround Kyoto on three sides to the north, east and west.
The purpose of the bonfires is to guide the souls back to heaven. Kyotoites have been lighting these bonfires - three of which are Chinese characters - for centuries. The characters are huge and can be seen from almost anywhere within the city - as long as a building is not blocking the view.
At exactly 8 pm, every August 16th, the first of five characters - the "dai" (大)- is lit. It burns for roughly 30-40 minutes and is located on Higashiyama, in the hills behind Kyoto University. The three strokes are 80 meters x 160 meters x 120 meters long.
At 8:10, the second fire is lit. this is Myoho: 妙法 (the character you will see is the 妙). This is a reference to the teachings of Buddha and means "excellent/unusual law." This fire is to the left, or north, of the first fire. It measures 100 meters.
Continuing on, the third fire is based on funagata (舟形 "shape of boat"), and appropriately looks like a boat. This is lit at 8:15 pm, and is 130 meters tall, 200 meters across.
The fourth is hidari daimonji (左大文字), which is located just north of Kinkakuji Temple, the Golden Pavilion, and is the same shape as the first "large" character.
The final character is toriigata (鳥居形、"shape of bird") and it does indeed look like a bird. It is 76 meters high and 72 meters across.
The fires are all alight at the same time at roughly 8:30.
If you want to see all of them, your best bet is to go to a hotel downtown and head to a top floor restaurant. They will advertise these as "Daimonji Specials."
For a better feel, though, of the experience of the festival, the banks of the Kamo River are great. Thousands gather on the east side of the Kamo River, near Imadegawa Bridge, and sit on the grass that overlooks the river.
From here you can only see the first fire, the "dai." Still, to sit with hundreds if not thousands of people of all ages at the edge of the river in the dark, some wearing yukata robes, sitting on blankets, sipping on tea or beer, is as good as it gets.