Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Daimonji (大文字)

The rain started around 7:15.  By the time I got to Katsura River it was pouring and I was soaked.  The mountains were invisible, completely shrouded in low-hanging rain clouds.  Even if it were clear I wasn't sure exactly in which direction I was supposed to be looking.

Daimonji or Gozan no Okuribi (roughly translated, "five mountain sending off fire") is an annual summer event in Kyoto celebrating the end of Obon which is a three-day Buddhist ceremony honoring the dead.  On August 15th five massive bonfires forming various symbols are set ablaze in the mountains surrounding the city.  These are meant to guide the visiting spirits back to heaven following their earthly sojourn.

Last year I missed it because I naively thought it was an all-night event (it is just 30 minutes, beginning promptly at 8:00), so I wasn't going to let the rain stop me.  There were a few others that braved the summer storm to commemorate the souls of their ancestors.  Of course, this being 2016, most were in the comfort of their cars where they could follow the progress of the other bonfires with smart-phone apps and live television coverage on their in-car video monitors.  A rather impassive homage.

As the rain fell and I waited a young woman approached me.  She asked (in Japanese) if I was there for Gozan no Okurubi.  "Hai, mitai desu," (Yes, I want to see it) I replied.  She explained, or anyway, this is what I understood, that it might be postponed because of the heavy rain.  I thought it unlikely that a ritual spanning more than five centuries would be abandoned because of inclement weather, but a glance at my watch and then at the dark mountains made it seem plausible.

Then, as I got up to leave, it appeared, the kanji character 大 ("dai" meaning big) glowing in the distance through the rain and clouds and darkness, like lava from a volcano.  While it certainly was a spectacle, it was not of the "ooh-aah" fireworks variety.  It lacked the sonic impact of a fireworks display,  It lacked the show-biz choreography.  It was noiseless.  There was no motion.  It inspired quiet reflection, not revelry.  But it had power.  Across some 9 kilometers you could feel it.  My thoughts drifted to my own ancestors.  I watched silently until the last flicker of red-orange disappeared from sight and the black night returned.

Before it was defiled and perverted into the sugar-coated freak show it is today Christians also had a three-day holiday honoring the dead: Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.  The Japanese too now celebrate Halloween, but thankfully it has not replaced the ancient traditions of Obon and Daimonji. 

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