Tears flowed freely down his cheeks, as he sniffed away quietly. Around us, people exclaimed excitedly over the sight ahead of us while cameras clicked continuously. His quiet sobbing made my heart squeeze and I was almost moved to tears. The old man was crying from his heart, as he stared intently at the blazing character atop the Daimonji mountain.
At that instance, I truly understood the true significance of Gozan no Okuribi.
Despite reading up on the traditional event prior to attending it, my ignorance gave way to a shallow mind that was more fascinated with the idea of giant bonfires that reflect Chinese characters and symbols. I was more interested in getting good photographs but there is more to Gozan no Okuribi (Mountain Bonfire).
Believed to be dated back to the 13th century, Gozan no Okuribi is an annual traditional event that takes place annually on August 16th to mark the end of the Obon Festival (Festival of the Ancestors). The event places emphasis on setting giant bonfires on each of the five mountains that surround Kyoto.
On each mountain, the fire is either in the shape of Kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing), a boat, or torii (Shinto shrine gate). These blazing symbols are meant to guide the souls of ancestors who returned to the mortal world during the Obon period back to their world that lies beyond.
In case you are wondering how the fire symbols are created, the answer lies in Gomagi. Made of cedarwood, Gomagi are wooden strips used for ritual burning and prayers.
On each Gomagi, one can write his/her name, any illnesses or complaints, etc. These wooden strips are collected from the public one day before Gozan no Okuribi in front of several temples. Thereafter, they shall be used to start the fires on the mountains.
There are several spots to view each mountain with their different characters or symbols but the significance remains unchanged. As the bonfire burned steadily ahead of us, I noticed two distinct groups of people.
The first group comprises of young Japanese couples and foreign visitors who waited in anticipation with their excited high-pitch voices and they took countless photos during the event. The other group includes the middle age and older locals who were more somber when waiting or viewing the Daimonji (one of the five mountains).
Unfortunately, I belonged to the first group initially. I was trying to inch my way forward for a better view when I came across the sobbing old man. No one else seems to notice him except me. “Who was he sending off? He must have loved the person a lot..."
Endless questions and thoughts ran through my mind. Although my silent questions were left unanswered, one thing was for sure. I have learned the true significance of Gozan no Okuribi. Beyond showing respect, gratitude, and love in ancestral worship, this ritual puts one through the parting with loved ones. Again.
Somehow, there are beauty and resilience to people who can go through these painful partings over and over again. It is an admirable trait that not many can endure. I hope this unique tradition and culture of Japan will prevail.