Experiences - Asia

Wakakusa Yamayaki Matsuri – Nara Mountain Burning Festival

Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan, is an aesthetically alluring and culturally bountiful city. As you enter the city, you are welcomed with world famous temples and hundreds of deer that roam the area. Deer were believed to be messengers of the gods, and allowed to live peacefully within the city.

The two rival temples, Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji temples are only a five-minute walk from one another. Kofuku-ji’s towering pagoda welcomes you first as you enter the main road. This temple was first constructed in 669 and later moved to Nara in 710. It was an important mark of the Buddhist religion and had a significant influence on the government of the time.

Wakakusa Yamayaki

Image Courtesy: nwhitely used under the Creative Commons Licence

Todai-ji Temple is much closer to Mt. Wakakusa. The temple welcomes you with delicious festival vendors giving away sample traditional Japanese snacks. Todai-ji, though rebuilt on a smaller scale, is still the world’s largest timber-frame building, which can be seen governing the Great Buddha Hall which is the world’s largest bronze gilded Vairocana Buddha.

Mt. Wakakusayama, a former volcano, rising 342 meters above sea level, is completely burnt on the fourth Saturday of January every year.

The origin of Wakakusa  Yamayaki Matsuri, Nara Mountain Burning Festival  lie in a dispute over the boundaries of two historic temples located in Nara City, the Kofuku-ji Temple in Nobori Oji-cho, and Todai-ji Temple (the famous Great Buddha statue) in Zoshi-cho.

Wakakusa Yamayaki Matsuri

Image Courtesy: iris used under the Creative Commons Licence

In 1760, when the boundary dispute got out of control, an official was chosen to act as a mediator. With Mt. Wakakusayama, right in the very center of the conflict, it was set ablaze. But, legend also has it that the mountain was purposefully burned to exterminate harmful insects and drive away wild boars.

Now for over 250 years, what started as a conflict grew into a revered custom, where people gather every year at the base of Mt. Wakakusa to watch the mountain burn. The Yamayaki Matsuri, which translates to Mountain Burning Festival, begins with a parade by Buddhist monks who light a torch at the Kasuga Taisha Shrine and carry it down to the small shrine at the foot of the hill.

Nara Mountain Burning Festival

Image Courtesy: nwhitely used under the Creative Commons Licence

First, the members of the Kofuku-ji, Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha light the hill with the sacred fire, following which, 200 fireworks are launched at the sound of trumpets’ echo, and the hill continues to burn for about 30 minutes or so. This fire spectacle can be witnessed from the surrounding towns, but Nara City, which faces the hill, offers the most beautiful view.

A day trip to Nara during the Yamayaki festival not only gives you an insight into Japan’s past, but also gives you a spectacular memory as you watch the fireworks burst from the summit of Mt. Wakakusa. The Mountain glows with engulfing orange flames when the dead turf is ignited. The vigorous fire burns on the face of the mountain with pagodas and temples silhouetted against it and combines with the beautiful fireworks to produce magnificent, fantastical scenery which just cannot be missed.

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