It’s still quite hot in Kyoto, but the gentle breezes carrying the song of crickets in the fields hint at the approach of autumn. This is the season of O-bon, when our world coincides most closely with the world of those we are connected to who have stepped into the beyond. Gozan no Okuribi is the ceremonial bonfire that marks its end, and represents the utmost expression of the seasonal traditions of Kyoto.
This day was known in olden times as Tonomu no Sechi. “Tonomu” is the new rice sprout, and while today the day is known as Hassaku, its essential meaning remains. It’s a day when people give thanks for the new harvest of rice, to celebrate the cycle it’s a part of, and to prevail upon the powers that be for another abundant crop. The associated festival is the Hassaku Matsuri. The focus of all the Shinto shrines in the region is the same, to entreat the deities to give their blessings to the crops. The sight of fields filled with bending rice stalks heralds autumn.
Japan’s philosophical heart is divided between the precepts of the indigenous Shinto religion and Buddhism, which came to Japan just around fifteen centuries ago, but inculcated itself into the fabric of culture completely. The Gozan no Okuribi bonfire is commonly thought of as the Buddhist O-bon. For this ceremony gargantuan Chinese characters are formed on five mountainsides, and at precisely 8:00 p.m. they’re set ablaze in a specific order, beginning with the character “dai” [大], meaning “large” or “great”. This ceremony is said to date from Japan’s Muromachi era, around the 14th century CE, when the practice of Buddhism grew beyond the confines of the elite to the people of the land. The apocryphal story of this practice’s origin states that once there was a fire at the Jodo Temple that sits at the foot of Mount Daimonji. The principal deity of the temple, the Buddha known by the Sanskrit name Amitabha, leapt to the summit of the mountain to escape it and his footprints spelled out the character for great. The Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi took this sign in light and determined that it should never be extinguished, and so the sacred tradition continues year after year. Seeing it inspires the contemplation of a paradise that exists for those who pursue it in earnest.