Bon, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead, is celebrated throughout Japan, but exact dates vary from region to region. Kyoto traditionally observes Bon Aug. 7-16, and, not surprisingly, given its more than 1,200 years of history and strong Buddhist traditions, the town has some unique ways of paying tribute to the holiday.
As Bon approaches, the main guests, the o-shorai-san (Kyoto dialect for ancestral spirits) must be summoned from “the other side.” In Kyoto this entails paying a visit to either Rokudo Chinkoji or Senbon Shakado, two temples traditionally assumed to be able to perform this intermediary service.
Located near the famous cemetery of Toribeno, Rokudo Chinkoji slumbers for most of the year in relative obscurity. During the period Aug. 7-10, however, the temple precincts witness a steady stream of people arriving between 6 a.m. and midnight to ring the temple bell. Unlike those of other temples, Chinkoji’s bronze bell is struck by pulling, rather than pushing, its wooden “clapper.” By ringing this bell, you are said to be able to pull your ancestors’ spirits back to this world.
Chinkoji’s role as an ancestor summoner seems to have derived from its associations with 9th-century statesman Ono no Takamura, who, the story goes, made a trip to the underworld via a well located on the temple grounds. On his return, Takamura was allowed by Enma, the king of the dead, to bring some souls back with him. As a mode of conveyance, Takamura is said to have utilized a branch of koyamaki, or yew, which explains why sprigs of this tree are to be found on sale here during these four days. Back when almost every Kyoto home had its own well, the koyamaki purchased here was taken home and dropped down it.
Two other temples in the vicinity, Rokuhara Mitsuji and Saifukuji, will also be busy at this time hosting parishioners engaged in Bon preparations.
Rokuhara Mitsuji, whose main hall dates back to the 12th century, is well worth a visit if only to see the statue of its founder, Kuya, housed in its museum. A mendicant priest, Kuya roamed the streets of the often epidemic-scourged capital preaching the nenbutsu, a democratic doctrine promising rebirth in the Western Paradise to anyone who simply chanted Amida Buddha’s name. Rokuhara Mitsuji’s somewhat startling statue depicts the wizened holy man, staff in hand, regurgitating a row of six tiny Buddhas from his mouth, each little Amida image representing a syllable of the nenbutsu chant.
Nearby Saifukuji houses several statues of Jizo, a protective deity who consoles the souls of dead children. Between Aug. 8-10, however, the main attraction at this tiny temple will be its display of jigoku-e (hell pictures), which graphically depict the decay of corpses as well as the torments awaiting sinners in the next life.
Located in the northwest part of town on the edge of Nishijin, the city’s old silk-weaving district, Senbon Shakado is the other Kyoto temple claiming to have a lot of pull with the other world. Its main hall, a designated National Treasure, has the distinction of being the oldest such structure in the city and is also famous for the image of Enma which it houses. Ono no Takamura, the well-traveled nobleman previously mentioned, is credited with having carved it. Between Aug. 8-12, this, as well as several images of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Mercy, will be displayed to the public.
When not summoning the spirits of their ancestors, many Kyoto citizens will be rummaging through bins of pottery at the city’s toki-matsuri, or pottery fair, held annually at Gojo-dori’s eastern end Aug. 7-10. Traditionally, in preparation for Bon, the offering dishes of the home altar were all replaced, a custom which gave Kyoto’s potters a chance to peddle their wares.
At one time a major center for the production of porcelain, Kyoto’s refined Kiyomizu-yaki and Kyo-yaki wares still enjoy a high repute. Although air pollution regulations have moved the kilns across the mountains to Yamashina Ward, many showrooms and outlets are still to be found on Gojo, and during the four days of the festival, the street becomes a ceramics cornucopia.
Another highlight of a Kyoto Bon is its manto (literally “10,000 lights”) ceremonies, the most famous of which takes place Aug. 14-16 at the cemetery of the temple known as Higashi Otani-san. Here, on a hillside overlooking the city, the graves of 13th-century priest Shinran and some 20,000 followers are illuminated with candles and lanterns, creating a solemnly beautiful sight.
That display, however, cannot hold a candle to Kyoto’s climactic Bon event: the Gozan no Okuribi, or Five Mountain Send-Off Fires. Visits from departed relatives are a lot like those from living ones: fun provided they don’t last too long. Kyotoites have always known how to politely, but firmly, show someone the door, and their dealings with the dead prove no exception to the rule. To give the oshorai-san the hint, five bonfires are set ablaze on mountaintops surrounding the city on the evening of Aug. 16, to light the spirits’ way back to “the other side.”
The first bonfire, lit at 8 p.m. on the flank of a mountain on the city’s east side, is in the shape of the Chinese character dai. Dai means great or big, and big it is! The long horizontal stroke of the character measures 80 meters, while the vertical stroke extends 160 meters down the mountainside. At 8:10 p.m. myo and ho, two characters which together stand for “Supreme Law of Buddha,” are lit. Funa-gata, a bonfire in the shape of a boat, follows soon thereafter at 8:15 p.m., and then comes hidari-dai, or left-dai. Last but not least, at 8:20 p.m., comes torii, a fire in the shape of a Shinto shrine gate.
Surprisingly little is known about when and in what manner these bonfires originated. Although two of them take place quite close to famous temples, temple records make no mention of them, indicating that the fires began as true folk festivals. Today each is maintained by a preservation association composed exclusively of families located at the base of each mountain, which supervise the upkeep of the mountainside and its fire pits.
In the not-too-distant past it was possible to see all five bonfires at once from many places in the city. Unfortunately, the recently erected 11-story Kyoto Hotel and other tall buildings have made that a next-to-impossible feat. Now the most that can be hoped for is to see three, or at most four, of the five fires. Hotel-top beer gardens charge a hefty price for the privilege of viewing the bonfires from their premises, yet even so the seats are all reserved weeks in advance.
Good views of the large dai, however, and glimpses of some of the other fires, can be enjoyed from the banks of the Kamo River near its confluence with the Takano River or from the grounds of the Old Imperial Palace.