Festivals of Japan: Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival in Nara
By John Asano
Fireworks are a great way to ring in the New Year, but how about setting an entire mountain ablaze. Every January in a New Year ritual in the old capital of Nara a mountain is set alight by fire, while fireworks light up the night sky to commemorate a feud many centuries ago between two of Nara’s great temples.
Originating in the 18th century, the burning of Mount Wakakusa is one of Japan’s most spectacular winter festivals. The annual festival is held on the fourth Saturday of January, and is believed to have started over a boundary dispute in 1760 between monks of Kofuku-ji Temple and Todai-ji Temple (home to the Great Buddha of Nara). Tensions couldn’t be settled by traditional mediation, so instead Mount Wakakusa, the very center of the conflict was set ablaze to end the boundary dispute.
The dead grass of Mount Wakakusa is burned in this annual festival, which is known as Yamayaki (山焼き) in Japanese. Yamayaki can be translated as “controlled burn” and is practiced all over Japan to ward off insects, or drive away bears and wild boars.
The Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival officially starts with a ceremonial lighting of the torch with sacred fire at Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara. The fire is carried in a parade of Buddhist monks dressed in traditional costumes to a small shrine at the foot of Mount Wakakusa, where a large bonfire is lit. At 6 pm there is a spectacular fireworks display over the mountain, which can be seen throughout the city.
Once the fireworks are complete, it is time to set the mountain on fire. Members of Kofuku-ji, Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha use the bonfire to light torches, which they then use to set the grass on fire. The actual burning of the mountain can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour depending on how dry the grass is.
Many smaller events are held at the base of Mount Wakakusa starting from around noon. One of the coolest is a giant rice cracker throwing competition, which uses giant versions of the famous shika-sembei (rice crackers) that are on sale throughout Nara Park for the free rooming wild deer, Nara’s most famous residents.
One of the best places to watch this magnificent festival is from Nara Park; just make sure you arrive early to get a good viewing position.
Location: Mount Wakakusa, Nara City, Nara Prefecture
When: January 23, 2016 (January 30 in case of bad weather)
Time: Fireworks begin around 6:00 pm
Official Website: narashikanko.or.jp/en/
The base of Mount Wakakusa is a 10-15 minute walk from either Todai-ji Temple or Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The mountain is about 35 minutes on foot from Kintetsu Nara Station, and about 50 minutes on foot from JR Nara Station. Buses run from both stations as far as Kasuga Taisha Shrine.