Giant bonfires on the slopes of Kyoto's hillsides mark Obon's end

Giant bonfires on the slopes of Kyoto's hillsides mark Obon's end

Obon season honors the departed and sends them back with night illuminations

Japan's obon season, three days in midsummer when the nation's inhabitants return to their family homes for a reunion, ended in Kyoto yesterday with the Gozan Okuribi Bonfire Festival. Five bonfires are lit around the hillsides of the ancient city, including the so-called "Daimonji" festival on the bank of the Kamogawa river, so titled for it's huge marking of the character 'dai' -- meaning large -- on Mount Nyoigatake. 

Obon evolved from a Japanese buddhist custom of paying respects to one's ancestors, and has a history of more than 500 years in which the family typicallly visits graves and shrines to remember the departed.

Another feature of obon is Bon-Odori, a traditional dance that welcomes the spirits of the dead that differs from region to region. The dance is usually accompanied by traditional folk songs called min'yo.

The bonfires in Kyoto are used to see off the spirits at the end of Obon, with the 'dai' of Daimonji the most famous. The upper stroke meaures 80 meters in length, while the curve measures 160 meters. Pine wood and pine needles are used to create the effect, with 75 burning areas set up. The fire lasts for approximately 30 minutes.

It is also said that drinking a tipple of sake (Japanese rice wine) with the fire's reflection in the cup will protect the drinker from illness.


Robert Michael Poole is a specialist on the Japanese music and entertainment scene.

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