Daimonji: Sending off the Spirits of the Dead

Matsunaga-sensei talks about the culmination of the Obon Festival, the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi bonfire, which is the sending off of the spirits of the dead back to the spirit world.

2013.08.17 obon02The lighting of great ceremonial bonfires, that are lit in the shape of the kanji characters and symoblic shapes on the sides of five mountains in Kyoto, at the end of the Obon period, marks the return of the spirits of the dead to the spirit world. Originally,  the bonfires on each of the five mountains were all meant to be seen from the Imperial Palace, but nowadays there are so many tall buildings that, as far I know, there are only a few places where you can see them all.

Where I live, Shimokamo, is in the north-east of the city. In the opposite direction is the mountain where the bonfire in the shape of Shinto torii gate, which would have once been clearly visible, but because the city is so built up I haven’t been able to see it. The “dai” character, meaing “big”, which is the first to be lit at 8pm on the night of the 16th, is quite nearby and I could see it – the red light of the character rising up into the dark night sky. I put my hands together in prayer and I felt moved to tears at the sight. Last year was the first obon since my father died and I felt in my heart that he had become this great fiery “dai”.

2013.08.17 namafuIn olden days, on the following morning the townspeople would gather together and ascend the mountain to collect the charcoal from the fire. When they returned home, they would wrap the charcoal in paper and place it on their gates as a proteciton amulet against fire for the coming year. Nowadays, people don’t tend to do this, but there are members of my family who live near the mountain that has the bonfire in the shape of the characters “myōhō”, meaning “the wondrous teaching of the Buddha”, and sometimes they give me the charcoal amulet from that mountain, carefully tied with red and white string, that provides protection against illness or disaster for the family for the coming year.

Because it is a Buddhist festival, Obon is closely associated with eating vegetarian cuisine, known as “shōjin ryōri”. Prepared foods such as yuba and namafu are an important part of that cuisine and they are also vital to Kyoto cuisine in general.

Source: 京のおばんざい100選

Here is a video showing the preparation for the Daimonji bonfire

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