Mountain Burning Festival, Mount Omuro, Ito City, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture 山焼祭 大室山 伊東市 伊豆半島 静岡県
Mount Omuro (Omuro-yama) in the east of the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo is certainly worth a visit in any season of the year. On one Sunday in late winter however, the mountain has its own very special 15 minutes. The 15 minutes it takes to burn all the old dry grass off the perfectly conical shaped slopes of the dormant volcano.
The event is named the Yamayaki Matsuri (Mountain Burning Festival) and it is always at first announced to take place on the 2nd Sunday of February. Delays are however common due to either rain or snow. In any case, it always take place on a Sunday.
According to local sources, the tradition of burning off the dry dead grass in late winter to make space for the fresh green of spring dates back about 700 years.
The grass covering the mountain slopes is about 70 cm tall, its brown, dead and dry. It has done its job keeping the slopes in shape, the grass roots protecting the smooth slopes from getting damaged by rain, wind, dry spells, typhoons or any combination thereof.
Now, a new generation of grass is needed to continue the job. It will grow quickly after the old grass has been burned off.
Visitors can participate in igniting the big fire. For this, you have to register at a desk at the Lower Omuro Lift Station in the morning of the festival day. Registration starts at 9 am, a maximum of 70 participants is permitted. Registration is first come, first served, with the participation fee 500 yen per person.
The chairlift is operating on the morning of the Yamayaki Matsuri. Take it up and watch the burning of the grass inside the crater, starting at 9.30 am.
Then, you have to take the lift back down. Visitors are not allowed to stay on top of the mountain during the main fire event. During the big fire, the lift service will stop.
The start of the big fire consuming the grass on the outer slopes is always around noon.
Sakura no Sato Park
Most visitors to the Yamayaki Matsuri witness the great fire from Sakura no Sato Park at the foot of Mount Omuro, about a 10 minute walk for the Lower Mount Omuro Lift Station. It's a large park and no matter how many visitors show up, there will always be a nice place to witness the fire.
Sakura on Sato Park features a wide variety of cherry trees, some of them blooming in late winter. With a bit of luck, it may be possible to catch the burning mountain in a photo with cherry blossoms in full bloom in the foreground.
In general, the atmosphere at Sakura no Sato Park is very relaxed. Families gather, parents and children exchange frisbee discs flying through the warm and sunny late winter air.Slowly, firemen in full gear take their posts at the foot of the mountain. For the occasion, they are dressed in a kind of Edo Era firemen style overcoats. They carry long, strong sticks with bundles of green twigs tied to their end.
The Big Fire
The brief shooting of a signal round, resulting in white smoke high up in the sky, marks the beginning of the ceremonies. Somewhere near the lift station, firemen and participating visitors ignite the great fire, using long bamboo torches.
For those watching from Sakura no Sato Park, the big fire arrives from the left. At first, it's just a bit of smoke, quickly intensifying. Helicopters hover over the mountain. No doubt, most of them belong to the firefighters though the news media certainly has also chartered one or two. After all, from up there, the views must be superb.
Below a dark crest of smoke, the first flames appear. They are giant flames and they race along the mountain rapidly from left to right. Just when they are about to hit Sakura no Sato Park, the posted firemen start additional fires, racing up the mountain and meeting the flames coming from the left on the lower half of the slope.
The smoke plume drowns out the sun. But after a few minutes, about 15 minutes to be correct, it's all over. Firemen use their sticks with green twigs to stamp out any residual embers.
The mountain cone has been turned into a uniform black; it takes a while for the smoke to clear. Birds of prey circle the mountain and make their dives down, catching small animals that have just lost their protective cover.
Finding out the Correct Date of the Event
Though the Yamayaki Matsuri is always scheduled for the 2nd Sunday in February, delays because of weather conditions are common.
The Yamayaki website run by Ito city will update you on the correct date and any last minute changes (in Japanese but the date is clearly spelled out in the headline) itospa.com/yamayaki
Please note that the website is only temporarily accessible - from about December to shortly after the event.
Mount Omuro Lift
Regular operating hours: March 16 - September 30th: 9 am to 5.15 pm, October 1st to March 15th: 9 am to 4.15 pm
Operating hours on the day of the Yamayaki Matsuri: the lift will stop taking passengers up after the burning of the grass in the inner crater. Operation will resume once it has been declared safe by the fire department after burning the outer slopes. Usually, at about 1 pm.
Tickets are always return trip. You can't walk down the mountain. Adults (middle school and older) 500 yen, children (age 4 and older) 250 yen.
Access - Getting to Mt Omuro
There is a bus ticket counter at Ito Station. Buy a one day ticket for the Tokai Bus for 1,300 yen. That's cheaper than paying on the bus. It's also much less of a hassle since the Tokai buses don't accept SUICA / PASMO cards and you would have to have 710 yen ready in coins to pay for a one-way fare.
Take the bus from bus stop number 6 in front of Ito Station towards Shaboten Koen Park / Omuro Lift Station. (Shaboten Koen is a zoological garden just opposite the street from the Omuro Lift Station.)
The bus takes about 40 minutes from Ito Station to Shaboten Koen / Mount Omuro.
Bus schedule from Ito Station to Shaboten Koen / Mount Omuro (in Japanese)
Website: omuroyama.com (in Japanese)
English language website of the Izu Geo Park english.izugeopark.org
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