When you think of festivals, you don’t generally think of setting a mountain on fire. In Nara, Japan, however, that is exactly what they do every January at Mount Wakakusa. The ancient volcano makes a formidable backdrop near the eastern half of Nara Park. While people might overlook the mountain most of the time, there is one day they are sure to remember its existence.
Yamayaki literally translates to “mountan roast”, which is what happens every year here on the fourth Saturday in January. To be fair, they don’t actually set the whole mountain on fire during the Wakakusa Yamayaki event. Instead, the people burn the dead grass gathered there in celebration of tradition.
The original story tells of a feud between the great Nara temples, with each laying claim to the mountain. Unable to reach a decision, they burned the territory instead. Other theories have been brought forward, such as using the fire to exterminate pests and other creatures. Wild boars used to be problematic in the area, and the flames may have been used to herd them away.
Though it may have originated due to unfriendly causes, the event is very much a highly anticipated and peaceful one today. The modern version is a joint effort between Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, and Kasuga Shrine. At its peak, the fiery mountain is visible throughout the whole city. Like many other festivals, the burning also contains a beautiful fireworks show.
Wakakusa Yamayaki offers plenty of fun in addition to the main event, such as a rice cracker throwing competition. The giant crackers resemble the deer biscuits offered in nearby Nara Park. Around late afternoon, a procession gets ready to light the famous fire. Crowds watch excitedly as they make their way to the base of the mountain, accompanied by music. After stopping at a shrine to light some torches, they continue on to light the bonfire on the side of the mountain.
After a brilliant fireworks display, the dead grass is set aflame. Slowly, the fire crawls until it covers most of the mountain, taking anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. In case of inclement weather, the event is postponed. Due to the elevation, there are many great locations throughout the city to view this spectacle. Popular points are Nara Park and the old Heijo Palace.
Outside of winter, Mount Wakakusa is quite beautiful. The mountain presents a spectacular view of the whole city, making it a popular hiking destination. Plenty of people stroll up the mountain, take in the breathtaking scenery, and maybe have a picnic or two. In spring, the cherry blossoms lining the slope burst into color, showing off their beauty. Whether you want to see the fire burning or simply witness its majestic beauty, Mount Wakakusa will surely leave you satisfied.
Omizutori is an ancient two-week long festival that occurs at Todaiji Temple in March. This is a truly exciting event that encompasses many rituals, including a fire and water ceremony.
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