I found out that there was a fire festival on Saturday in Nara – an ancient capital of Japan close to Kyoto and Osaka. I decided to go to Nara for the day, then head to Osaka at night as originally planned.

Nara is strange. According to local legend, the god Sento rode to Nara on a deer. Or something. In any case, there are deer everywhere. They’re tame but they’ll eat your food if you’re not careful. You can buy deer crackers from street vendors if you want to make a few quick friends.

Me & SentoNom, chain

Another big attraction in Nara is the Daibutsu: 16 foot tall bronze Buddha in Todai-ji. There’s also a hole in a beam that you can crawl through. It’s the same side as the Buddha’s nostril and crawling through – if you can fit – is supposed to ensure you of enlightenment. It’s a pretty small hole. I watched several children and the occasional skinny Japanese woman crawl through and then (you can probably tell where this is going) took off my jacket and took everything out of my pockets to pull myself through! I think most of the people around were expecting me to get stuck. Their loss is my gain :)

Daibutsu and friend

Finally, it was time for Yamayaki. Although originally started to commemorate a military action where Wakakusa-yama (hill) was set on fire as part of a feud between monks, the event now has religious overtones. I don’t understand the Shinto religion at the best of times, so I’m not going to try and explain _why_ anything happened. I’m just going to write _what_ happened.

There was a flame burning in a park in central Nara all day. People were chanting and banging drums. Meanwhile, many more people assembled at Wakakusa-yama where there was a band playing on a stage. Also deer, as usual. These guys had no idea what was coming:

Deer before Yamayaki

Fortunately, these guys (fire rangers) did:

Fire rangers before Yamayaki

Finally, around sunset, torches were lit from the park flame and carried to a shrine built near Wakakusa-yama. (Like most Yamakaki spectators, I watched this happen on a large projection screen at the bottom of the hill.) They lit a pyre at the shrine and a succession of people offered prayers (in double-clap-and-bow Shinto fashion) and added leaves to the fire. Then more torches were lit from this fire and carried to light a third pyre just past the rope keeping spectators out.

Yamayaki Yamayaki Yamayaki

From this pyre, several groups of people lit torches and carried them to spots around the hill under a firework-lit sky. A few hundred fire rangers armed with beaters and water packs were also assembled around the hill by this time.

Yamayaki

At the end of the fireworks, they lit Wakakusa-yama and it blazed on

Yamayaki Yamayaki Yamayaki

and eventually started to burn out

Yamayaki Yamayaki

and meanwhile everyone went home.

Originally written January 26, 2010