Kurama Fire Festival, or Kurama no Hi-Matsuri, as it’s known in Japan, is a festival that takes place once a year on 22nd October in the small village of Kurama (just north of Kyoto).
Japan is particularly famous for its festivals, so I’d read up on a number of them before I arrived and knew that I definitely wanted to go to this one. Kurama no Hi-Matsuri re-enacts the scene of receiving the deity at Kurama shrine, which is said to have happened for the first time during the Heian Period, in 940AD.
Villagers process through the main street of Kurama carrying varying sizes of taimatsu (burning pine torches) and shouting the arrival of the festival in loud voices. The children carry small pine torches, the teenagers (for whom this is something of a rite of passage) carry medium sized ones and the adults carry full size torches, which weigh approximately 80kg and sometimes require more than two of them to lift.
After catching a subway and a train from Osaka to Kyoto, then queueing for a train out to Kurama, we arrived in time to see the processions beginning through the streets. As there were so many visitors and police were controlling the crowds, we had to wait a while to be let through onto the main walkway through the village, but once we were we saw incredible sights.
Kagaribi (bonfires) lined the main street and the villagers were processing up to the shrine at set intervals. The buildings and houses on either side of the main road were full of other villagers and town officials all coming together to watch the tradition. Although it was already dark and getting colder by the minute, the fires and lanterns lit up the small village making for a toasty, electric atmosphere.
As we walked through the village, we were blown away by the villagers’ ability to lift the torches as if they weighed no more than 10kg (rather than eight times that). Their traditional festival dress made the festival feel deeply-rooted in the village’s past history, it felt a privilege to witness something that only occurs once a year.
The only downside was that due to the festival’s increasing popularity among Japanese and foreign visitors alike, the trains to and from Kurama, and the village itself was very crowded. The police made sure everything ran smoothly, but once or twice their shouting and marshaling spoiled the atmosphere. Having said that, the amount of people that turned up meant that they were a necessity, and they did an excellent job of keeping everyone safe.
Just after 8pm, our group had decided to head back to the station and catch the train back to Kyoto. We were stopped on our way, however, and told that we had to wait while the procession passed through. And I’m so glad we did.
Purely by accident, we ended up in the perfect viewing spot to watch the spectacular procession. First came several villagers carrying a totem that was so large (about 15ft tall) that they had to put it down every few steps. Second was a number of adults and teenagers wheeling, and banging, a huge drum, followed by other villagers in ceremonial dress and kimonos.
It was incredible to witness and I’m so glad we happened to be in the right place at the right time to get such a view. Despite the huge crowds, I felt like we saw something truly special that evening and I’m glad that was my first every Japanese festival. I’m certain the excitement and anticipation I felt that evening will stay with me for many years to come.