Japan never ceases to amaze us with its festivals and The Wakakusa Yamayaki, which burns down a mountain for visual spectacle, is one such celebration.
Every winter, during the cold month of January, the Wakakusa Mountain is put on fire as part of the Yamayaki Festival, and it blazes against the night dark sky as several spectators look on at the smoldering visual. Yes, you read that correctly.
The country of Japan has its share of whimsical celebrations – each uniquely bizarre. But few festivals transcend the boundary of mere cultural events to become a spectacle that is worth witnessing at least once in one’s lifetime. And the festival of Wakakusa Yamayaki is just that, and more. In Nara, the capital city of Nara Prefecture, the fourth Saturday of every January witnesses an extravagant display of fireworks, and well, a lot of fire, as part of the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival. The festival also signifies a confluence of different disciplines of faith, and the magic that can be achieved when a meeting point can be fostered.
And they burn a mountain to celebrate the same.
There are two alternate theories to how The Wakakusa Yamayaki festival came to be. One narrates the story of how an interfaith dispute was met with the burning of the mountain. There happen to be three temples in Nara – the Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and a Shinto shrine, Kasuga-taisha. The former two temples were engaged in a property dispute. To handle that a neutral official belonging to the Kasuga-taisha was called upon. With the talks breaking down with no solution, the land in dispute, that is the mountain of Wakakusa was then ignited as a show of rebellion. A secondary legend goes that people of Nara, plagued with the many boars that troubled them from the mountains, chose to light the mountain on fire to chase them away.
It might seem amusing that the significant festival, also a tourist favourite, would choose to commemorate a time that wasn’t a successful solution to the then ongoing conflict, but the festival is today celebrated to mark harmony and respect.
The mountain burning follows the fireworks
On the aforementioned fourth Saturday of January, the festival is celebrated with several unique rituals. Beginning at noon, people assemble at the base of the mountain to watch the very popular attraction of sembei tossing. Sembei, or rice crackers, are thrown in the air, to resemble the show of fireworks that is to follow not very late after.
At about 5pm, a selection of 30 people, who are meant to light the mountain on fire, depart from Nara Park, stopping midway at the Mizutani Bridge to light their torches. After half an hour, they assemble at the base of the mountain, where several thousand people have already gathered, to light a large bonfire in the area a little away from where the public can be found standing. At 6 pm, fireworks are lit for an extravagant display which is then followed by lighting the mountain grass through the bonfire. A show, which lasts for a good one hour, and with a fire department at bay, one can be assured that the fire never really spreads past the intended perimeters.
Because of the mountain’s elevation, the spectacle can be witnessed from a distance far away, but the best view is secured from Nara Park itself, as the phenomenon can be best experienced from the base of the mountain.