Wakakusa Yamayaki is by far one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in Japan. The big Buddha (Daibutsu) in Todaiji (the largest wooden building in the world, and is only a fraction of the size of the original!) , and Kinkakuji (a pavilion covered in gold leaf) are definitely amazing to see, but Wakakusa Yamayaki is something else.
It’s a festival…
..during which a mountain gets set on fire.
I’m not talking a small portion of a mountain, either, or a giant kanji burned into a mountain. I mean a mountain; the whole thing.
When I heard about it I knew I had to go – it’s not exactly something you would see every day. To be exact, Wakakusa Yamayaki happens once a year in Nara (not far from Kyoto so makes for a great evening trip, or way to finish a day trip), on the 4th Saturday in January every year (unless the weather in bad in which case it’s delayed a week).
[Note: Now, that does mean it is still in the middle of winter, so if you do go, make sure you take a warm coat. You’ll spend a bit of time standing quite still, because once you’ve secured a good spot in the crowd to watch the mountain get lit on fire, you’ll want to keep it. Once the fire is lit, things warms up a bit, but in the meantime make sure you’re rugged up!]
As with all (or at least all that I’ve been to) festivals in Japan, there are some food stalls with plentiful food on sticks, and vending machines not too far off with hot drinks (also cold drinks, but it is winter…). While you’re waiting for the fire, you can grab a snack or drink, and watch what else is happening. When I went, there was a taiko performance!
At this point the crowd was slowly gathering, waiting for the main event, which would start after the sun set. Most of the attention was turned towards the taiko, the stalls, and the nearing sunset behind them, but some people were already starting to set up for the fire.
You can tell here that people are reasonably rugged up. It’s not as cold as some parts of Europe or Northern Asia, but the mountain is fairly exposed an the winds can sneak inside your coat and chill you to the bone. The sunny day also tricks you into thinking it is warmer than it is.
Despite the chill, plenty of people were there, and when the sun finally set, things started to heat up (pun absolutely intended).
I’ve put a slideshow of the pictures below, which will probably do a better job of showing you what the whole evening was like, but I’ll summarise here.
Monks from the local temples headed the ceremony, starting by lighting a small pyre of wood. Volunteers (volunteered at some previous time, not just random people from the crowd) then took torches from this pyre to light various points along the base of the mountain.
For a brief, few minutes, it seems underwhelming, and then suddenly each of the starter fires jump out and along to form a wall of flame that tears up the mountainside. You can feel the wave of heat fly back at you and hit you with almost tangible force. Even from a safe distance. You feel a bit like you should be concerned, it’s huge and seemingly with a mind of it’s own now, but instead you’re transfixed. It’s hard to describe but impossible to forget…
Afterwards, the chill begins to set it again, though not enough to make me rush back to the train station quite yet (about a 20 minute walk, depending how fast you walk and how slow the crowd around you moves). So, to take full advantage of the festival, and to finish the day, I got what it easily the best, decorated, choco-banana on a stick I’ve ever had!
This was definitely one of the most memorable nights I’ve spent in Japan so far, especially as far as spectacular once-in-a-life-time viewings (or at least once a year) go! I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who happens to be there at the right time.