Did you ever play with matches as a kid? Or get really excited when you were allowed to start the campfire or light birthday candles? I’d say that everybody has some semblance of pyromania deep down inside. There’s just something about fire that fascinates us humans.
Well, how do you feel about lighting an entire mountain on fire? That’s how we do it here in Japan.
Welcome to Nara’s Wakakusa Yamayaki – the burning of Mount Wakakusa. The ceremony itself occurs every 4th Saturday of January and this year took place on January 24th. Mount Wakakusa sits between the ancient temples of Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple, both of which contributed to the origins of this festival.
Allegedly, the Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji temples were at complete odds with one another over border disputes. After peace talks failed, something occurred between the two that set Wakakusa ablaze. Ever since that conflict, Yamayaki, literally meaning “mountain roast,” has torched the mountains surface in remembrance.
Regardless of it’s origins, the festival attracts hundreds and hundreds of people from throughout the Kansai region of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Mie, Wakayam, Hyogo & Shiga prefectures) rush to Nara to spend the day at the many activities and events. While there are some day time activities such as throwing giant sembei crackers (rice crackers), the festival really begins at 6:00 pm with 15 minutes of fireworks launched straight from the mountain.
The fireworks show is amazing and after it has finally finished, the mountain is set aflame. Priests from Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, and Kasuga Shrine gather into teams to light quartered off areas of dead grass across the mountain. Before too long the entire mountain lights up the sky and can be seen from throughout Nara city.
In order to get the best views of the inferno, here are my biggest tips:
1. Get to Nara Park early. There will be hundreds of people all over the park and it can get very crowded and claustrophobic, stake out your spot before others.
2. Don’t settle! Even though there are a lot of people and you may be a little late, Nara Park is enormous! Keep walking and ducking through groups of people and you’ll eventually find a big wide open space for you and your sweety or camera. Trust me, crowds tend to bunch up in Japan and not spread out.
3. Wear warm clothes! Yes, there will be a massive fire…no it will not keep you warm. Japan is getting colder and colder every year and January will spit out temperatures of 25 – 30° F for all you Americans, and -4 – 1 °C for everyone else. Don’t stress though, a nice jacket or sweater paired with some gloves and a beanie will set you right.
All tips aside, how do you get to Nara Park in the first place? To answer that, I’ve attached a great map from Japan-Guide.com below. You can check out their website here.
Be aware, there are going to be hundreds of people heading from the burning back to the main train stations to catch rides back home or to just get dinner at the many centrally located restaurants. My biggest advice for overcoming these crowds is to make reservations for restaurants beforehand or to simply wait and get some street food yakisoba. It really is the best option.
Don’t let this deter you either. Dealing with the crowds is worth it. This is a very culturally unique aspect of Nara and Japan. Don’t miss the chance to witness some state sponsored pyromania if you are ever in the Kansai area in January.
Who knows, maybe you’ll be featured on the Wakakusa Yamayaki Instagram blog roll.