Updated： November 15, 2017
Wakakusa Yamayaki: An Ancient Mountain-Burning Festival in Nara
Wakakusa Yamayaki is an old tradition of burning the hillslope of a mountain located near Nara city. It's one of the most famous festivals during the winter season in the former capital of Japan.
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The festival is held every year on the fourth Saturday of January in Nara City. This is a terrific event to see if you happen to be in the old capital during the winter season.
Firstly, Nara in itself is a must-visit area to anyone who has an interest in Japan's traditional culture. The city is not big, but it has countless cultural landmarks such as temples and traditional gardens. It was once the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 and many of its cultural assets date back to that period. What's more, the whole historic city is populated with wild deer that are not afraid of humans! So you can see them roaming by you as you marvel before 1,300 years old temples.
Nara is located at the base of Mount Wakakusa. The mountain is 334 meters high and a wide area of the flank facing the city of Nara is treeless. The name of the mountain "Wakakusa" literally translates into "young grass".
Instead, the area is covered with grass. This dates back from the tradition of setting the mountain ablaze every year since the middle of the 18th century. Although the origin is not entirely clear, some theories claim that the tradition emerged as a byproduct of a boundary dispute between the Todai-ji and the Kofuku-ji temples. Another theory stipulates that the fire was meant to chase away pest and wild boars.
Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival
Before dusk, a huge bonfire is lit. The place to go to see the fire from up close is on the east end of the Nara Park.
Although this is not the highlight of the event, people start to gather at the base of the mountain before the bonfire is lit. The liting of the fire is done in a ceremonial way. A procession of people wearing traditional clothes light some torches at the Mizuya Shrine before making its way to the designated site. The liting of the bonfire starts at around 17:30. Note that the festival officially starts at noon, so you may witness other minor events around Nara during the day. There is a giant senbei cracker throwing competition during the day that's interesting to look at.
Shortly after the bonfire is lit and dusk has set, the real spectacle begins! The grassy area of the mountain is lit. The fire spreads through the whole area in a matter of minutes. Depending on the dryness of the grass, it can take from 30 minutes to an hour for the whole area to burn.
There is, of course, a security perimeter delimited by a tall fence.
Watching from the foothill of the mountain is perhaps the best place to feel the energy of the blazing fire.
However, the event can also be enjoyed from afar. Along with the yamayaki, or mountain burning, there is also are also fireworks show!
The event is particularly popular with photography enthusiasts
With the ancient temples, the burning grass spreading in unpredictable directions and the beautiful fireworks, amazing pictures can be taken from so many different sites in Nara.
Wakakusa Yamayaki is such unique festival in such an awesome city! Hope you feel like visiting Nara in the winter now.
- Japanese food culture enthusiast. Love to explore new areas and discover local specialties.
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