The pond is quiet. Distant clamour, car-horns, kagurabue flutes from the nearby shrine, and cicada songs, mix together to make an August soundtrack, but one turned low.
Louder is the click and drip of the oars, and the hollow swish of water against the boat. The lanterns, hundreds of brightly coloured paper, candle carrying lanterns, make no sound. They cluster into short lived islands, that scatter as boats with families, and couples in yukata, drift serenely through.
On the 16th of August, Japanese ancestral spirits return to the other world. Across Japan, people gather, and light okuribi fires to bid them farewell. Hirosawa pond (広沢池) in beautiful Arashiyama, Kyoto, hosts a traditional Toro Nagashi Festival (灯篭流し祭り), where floating lanterns are released to symbolise the path of the returning souls.
On the same night, in the same place, visitors can also enjoy the internationally famous Daimonji festival. Though only one of the five immense kanji bonfires is visible from the pond, the view is clear, and beautifully complemented by the candles floating by.
Hirosawa pond is a 20 minute walk north from Saga-Arashiyama station. Passing Chigo shrine (兒神社) on the western shore, and walking east along the main road brings visitors to the rental boat shed midway around the pond. The cost is around 900 yen per hour, per boat, and visitors renting from 19:00 may want to pre-buy 2 hours so as not to miss Daimonji.
The boats themselves are large, and reasonably easy to manage, capable of carrying three adults comfortably. Though there are quite a lot of boats available, after 19:00, when the Toro Nagashi, festival starts, they begin to disappear quickly. Even if you come too late, there are always places along the eastern shore, to squeeze in, beer and fan in hand, and enjoy the view.
The best part of being in a boat during Daimonji, is simply being away from the rest of the crowds. While there are places in Kyoto with more complete views of the five burning symbols – atop Kyoto station, on the roof of a hotel, or along the Kamogawa river – they tend to be intensely packed, hot, and hard to escape from.
Hirosawa pond, though still popular, somehow feels less discovered. Out on the water, where it’s cool and dark, there is a sense of distance from the throng, of being alone but part of an quintessentially Japanese scene.
Of course, though Hirosawa is wider than the word ‘pond’ might connotate, after the sun goes down, rowers will need to take care not to accidentally ram another boat, or become stranded too close to the shore.
The five Daimonji symbols are lit from 20:00, and around 20:30 the torii gate sign shimmers into view across the pond. For a long, gorgeous half hour, the fires on the hills flicker with those afloat on the lake. For the people boating between them, it is a magical and mystical time. Truly the moments when visiting spirit of the dead might be slipping back through to the other world.
Toro Nagashi festival starts from 19:00, and Daimonji festival from 20:00 to 20:30, on August 16th, Hirosawa no ike, Kyoto.