[View of Kyoto from Daimonjiyama. The green patch in front is Mt Yoshida with Shinnyodo, the one behind that Gosho, the old palace; the narrow one on the right is the Shimogamo Shrine]
I had been there before, many years ago, so long that I could not remember the path up the mountain anymore, nor the stone steps near the top. And in my memory the "Dai" was a grassy field, while in present-day reality it appeared to be rather overgrown and the face of the hill much steeper than I thought.
At the point where I stood was an altar dedicated to Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and perhaps the most famous Buddhist cleric Japan has known. He is credited with all kinds of inventions and too numerous temple foundings to be true and to my surprise also with establishing the custom of the Daimonji fires. Apparently he had a vision of the Amida statue of Jodoji (the temple that stood here before Ginkakuji was built) flying up into the air with a flash of light, so he started lighting the annual send-off fires in commemoration. This is clearly nothing more than a pious legend, but Daimonji still starts every year at 19:00 by lighting lanterns and chanting sutras at the Kobodaishi Hall. The light from the lanterns is then used to light the fires on the mountain.
[The center of Daimonji with the altar of Kobo Daishi]
There are in fact two more explanations of the origins of the Daimonji bonfires. The second explanation also smacks of the legendary, if only because an important historical figure is involved, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), the founder of Ginkakuji. Yoshimasa reputedly started the custom to commerate the death of his son, who was killed in battle in 1489. He had one of his retainers engrave the character Dai on the hillface behind Ginkakuji and set it ablaze in August 16 to send off the soul of his son. It is true that you have a great view of Mt Daimonji from the area north of the old Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho), where the Ashikaga shoguns had their "Palace of Flowers", but Yoshimasa was at that time already living in his Higashiyama mansion, now Ginkakuji, directly below the hill from where he could not see the Dai shape. Moreover, this would be only a one time event and does not explain how the bon fire came to be celebrated annually by the whole city, not only here, but also by fires in various other shapes on Kyoto's hills.
Thus we turn to the third explanation, that the Daimonji Okuribi festival was in fact started by the townspeople of Kyoto. Even here an Imperial Prince, Konoe, makes his appearance as calligrapher of the character Dai. Japan is a hierarchical society where apparently everything has to be linked to someone of importance in order to be important enough to consider. But we do not need princes or priests to understand Daimonji. This third explanation is the right one: Daimonji and the other bonfires on Kyoto's hills originated among commoners, among ordinary townfolk. A supporting fact is, that there is no official account of its origin, despite that the court chronicled all other seasonal activities.
Of course, the Gozan Okuribi is part of the Bon festivities which cover a week in mid-August and which were first recorded for the 16th century. This is the time the souls of the ancestors are welcomed back to the earth, to be regaled with food and incense. In the end, they are sent off again with small bonfires in the streets and by hanging out countless lanterns. So O-bon has always been a Festival of Light, of Ten-thousand Lamps (Manto-e). The step to lighting large bonfires on the hills, where all could see them, instead of small ones in the city itself, seems a natural one - it was also made possible by the rise of neighborhood associations who would built those fires together. This blowing up of the Festival of Light may also have been motivated by fear of angry spirits due to the many wars in the Muromachi period, such as the devastating Onin War in the late 15th. c.
[The fires are built on these stones]
The first mention of Daimonji comes from a diary dating from 1603. In the mid of the 17th c., when Japan was at peace and tourism became a popular pastime, the large bonfires on the hills of Kyoto became famous - but by then the origin had already been forgotten. This is also the period the theory about Ashikaga Yoshimasa first appeared.
Another mystery is the character Dai, "large." Why this character? Is it a human with outstretched hands? Or the halo of the Buddha Amida? The answer can be found in Rokuharamitsuji, a beautiful old temple in central Kyoto, where during O-bon many small lights in the Dai-shape are lighted. According to this temple, the Dai represents the four elements Earth, Fire, Water and Wind, plus a fifth one, Air, and so stands for all of Nature, for respect for the ancestors and fear for of the natural forces around us.
The character Dai that has been encrusted on the hill face is huge. The horizontal stroke measures 80 meters across, the longer vertical stroke is a full 160 meters. This is the first fire to be lit during the festival, exactly at 20:00. In the past the fires would be built in pits, now the wood is carefully piled up on stone foundations. It takes 600 piles of firewood, 100 piles of pine tree leaves and 100 piles of straw to light Daimonji. Mixed in are gomagi, pieces of wood on which people write a wish - you can buy a gomagi in the morning and afternoon of the festival in front of Jodoji Temple, next to Ginkakuji.
[View of Kyoto against the setting sun]
Daimonji has found its way into the hearts of the people of Kyoto, as is shown by several beliefs that have come up concerning it. For one thing, you should try to catch the reflection of the bonfire in your sake cup and then make a wish - that wish will certainly come true. Another belief is that the remnants of the fires, small pieces of charred wood, become powerful amulets. Many people therefore climb up Daimonji to find them on the day after the festival.
Dusk is falling, I have to hurry to get down the mountain... I start walking after one last look at the city, peaceful in the rays of the setting sun...
Mt Daimonji can be freely climbed, except on the day of the festival. The path starts at the back of Ginkakuji. In front of Ginkakuji, facing the hill, turn left; take the first right; and the first right again; you are now at the back of Ginkakuji. Where the valley ends, a path to the right leads up the mountain. The steps can be quite steep; the last section is a stone staircase. Wear good shoes and don't go when the path is too wet and slippery.
Best places for viewing the Daimonji bonfire are from the northern part of Kyoto, for example along the Shimogamo River, near the Shimogamo Shrine, etc.
The other bonfires are: the charachter Myo on Mt Mantoro and the character Ho on Mt Daikokuten - together these form the words "Wonderful Law," pointing to the Buddhism of the Nichiren sect; a ship sailing with souls towards the Pure Land of the Buddha on Mt Funayama; a smaller character for Dai on Mt Okita; and the shape of a torii-gate on Mt Mandara, symbolizing the Atago Shrine in northwest Kyoto.