After two days of heavy snowfall, and more forecasted, Zoya and I decided it was a good weekend to leave Fukui behind. Wakusa Yamayaki, an annual fire festival, was my justification to return to one of my favourite cities in Japan: Nara.
We left Fukui’s stormy snow clouds and blanketed white fields by train and emerged from the many tunnels in sunny Shiga prefecture. After a quick change at Kyoto, and a forty-five minute ride we arrived at Nara JR Station. Although the sun was shining, the temperature was still hovering at 1’c due to the wind that sweeps across Nara prefecture. Nevertheless we hired bikes, donned many layers of clothing and headed towards the park.
Before going too far we came across an eccentric French cafe, named Monsieur Pepe’s. I can thoroughly recommend it for delicious beef bourguignon, vintage furniture and hilariously huge cutlery! Back in the park we biked around ponds, through forests, trying to avoid hitting deer or starting a Fenton-like stampede (watch this for a guaranteed laugh).
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
We came across the tori entrance to Kasuga Taisha shrine and walked up the lantern-lined path to the main courtyard. Female priestesses with wisteria-like headdresses were performing fortune-telling rituals, whilst male priests in traditional clothing were busy preparing for the evening’s festival. Hundreds of bronze and gold hanging lanterns decorated the orange-painted courtyard, each one with a different design. The most impressive sight were the thatched roofs of various buildings, intricately woven with cypress bark and replaced every 20 years so the traditional technique is passed to the next generation. This place is not to be missed.
This temple is part of the Wakusa Yamayaki festival as Shinto priests light a torch with sacred fire and carry it to the foot of the hill. There they light the dead grass that had been purposefully left to grow since the summer. Their our various explanations why this event took took place in the first place. One theory is the fire scared away wild boars in the surrounding forest. Another is that the fire marked the territory of competing temples in the park. Now, the festival is part of the New Year celebrations and an excuse for a fireworks display and a fun evening out for families. (Click here for more details about attending the festival.)
The real action begins
We arrived at the hill at sunset and watched as thousands of people gathered to watch the annual fireworks display and grass-lighting. Zoya was understandably worried about being just 100m from the burning expanse of grass, but it was a ninja-lookalike group of men waiting by the fire that scared me more! Dressed in all black and presumably wearing fire-protective balaclavas they looked more ominous than usual fire fighters!
Without warning, at 6.15, the fireworks started and everyone gazed up at the sky. That is, apart from a toddler who cried, ‘Kowai!’ (scary) for the first five minutes of it! Then the ninja-lookalikes spread out across the boundary and lit the tall grass with torches. Within 10 minutes the whole hill was ablaze and great bellows of orange smoke were rising into the sky. The main flames lasted less than twenty minutes and soon everyone started descending the hill and walking back to the city.
After warming up in a Chinese restaurant, we made our way back to Yazun Guest House and rested our weary legs. It had been an exhausted but exciting day.