About This Festival
A Little Linguistics
Ever had yakitori at a Japanese restaurant? If not, you're missing out. If so, you know what we're talking about. Yakitori is delicious—grilled chicken cooked over an open fire. Grilled anything, really, because that's what yaki means—grilled, or roasted.
Which brings us to, in a roundabout linguistic way, a yearly winter festival in Nara, the capital of Nara Prefecture: the yama-yaki. Or to literally translate: the mountain roast.
OK: in this case the term "yamayaki" is more accurately translated as "controlled burn," but where's the fun in that? No, we like the sound of a mountain roast, of grilling a geographic feature over an open fire, and that is more or less what two Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine do to Mount Wakakusa (Wakakusa-yama) on the fourth Saturday of every January, weather permitting: set Wakakusa-yama on fire. For roughly an hour, the grass on the slopes blazes, as if a red hell were draped over the mountainside. When 1,122 ft of Mount Wakakusa becomes a flickering torch, the fire can be seen across the entire city of Nara.
But be patient. They only set the mountain on fire after an extensive fireworks display and a festival that involves an interfaith demonstration put on by Japan's major religions along with a parade that includes a giant rice cracker tossing competition. Natch.
However This Started, It All Ends in a Blaze
"Nara"—both the city and the prefecture—is synonymous with history in Japan. The surrounding Kansai region is the cultural heartland of the nation; where nearby Osaka (about 21 miles away) is known for its literature and theater, Nara has a Boston-esque reputation for possesing history around every corner. This is the location of Nanto Shichi Daiji, "The Seven Great Temples of Nanto (Nara)," which are seminal to Japanese Buddhism, as well as Nara Palace and other locales, which taken together have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Two of the seven great temples—Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji, as well as a Shinto shrine (Kasuga-taisha)—are located within Nara Park, itself one of Japan's great green spaces, located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. The park possesses a quintessentially Japanese aesthetic approach to landscaping, managing to be wild enough to propitiate the kami (spirits) at the heart of animistic Shintoism, while accessible enough to satisfy the humanistic impulses of Buddhist spiritual seekers.
Peaceful park. Buddhist temples. Shinto shrine. There are lots of Asia clichés about Zen and serenity swimming just under the surface here, and every one of those tropes get exploded by the Wakakusa Yamayaki.
First: the reason for the season comes down to either a land dispute or pest control. Legend one: the Buddhist members of Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji temples were having a boundary dispute in 1760. The ostensibly neutral Shinto staff of Kasuga shrine was brought in to act as third party mediator. Talks broke down, and in a perhaps not optimal display of conflict resolution skills, the boundary land in dispute and surrounds—i.e. Mount Wakakusa—was incinerated.
Legend Two: wild boar were bothering everybody. Clearly, the populace of Nara doesn't use a scalpel when a katana will do. They dealt with those pigs the best way they knew how: by torching the mountain said pigs lived on.
Alright, proscribed burns are an effective means of landscape management the world over, but it's still a little ironic that the chief festival for this area, best known for a religious and natural heritage that emphasizes tranquility and harmony, is a party that wouldn't be out of place in a pyromaniac's lurid fantasies.
Pass the Rice Cake. Go Long.
The festival officially gets started at noon. If you get here that early—and you may want to, as this is a popular party—you'll see the sembei tossing competition, which usually lasts from 1-3pm. There are some 1,200 wild sika deer in Nara Park, and sembei, a kind of giant rice cracker, are sold throughout the park as deer food.
At 5pm, a religious procession heads from the Silk Road Exchange Hall in Nara Park to the base of the mountain via the Mizutani Bridge. This is where Japan's two faiths, Buddhism and Shinto, as well as the older folk customs that underlay both traditions, are most visible. Monks and priests from Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Kasuga dress in traditional costume while lanterns and torches are lit; for an outsider, this may seem like the most 'Japanese' part of the day.
With that said, most native Japanese are pumped for the main event: the lighting of bonfires on the mountain and a pretty phenomenal fireworks display, followed by the actual burning of the mountain, which takes about an hour depending on how dry the grass is.