Festival of a Burning Mountain – Wakakusa Yamayaki

Do you like a festival that includes fireworks?

You must have seen many festivals that include firework, but watching an entire mountain burning is a heartwarming experience. Yes, you spelled it right burning mountain, every year on the 4th Saturday of January the night over an ancient town Nara is brighter than a day. It’s because the mountain located at the eastern end of Nara Park, known as Wakakusa Mountain is set on fire to celebrate the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival.

Wakakusa Yamayaki

Meaning of Wakakusa Yamayaki

In Japanese, Wakakusa Mountain is written as 若草山. The last symbol “山” is a representation of a mountain(Yama). The other two characters mean 若 = young, and 草 = grass. So Wakakusa means a Mountain of Young Grass.

Now, what about the other part ‘Yamayaki’? We already know that Yama(山) represents Mountain. So, what does Yaki means? In Japan word, Yakitori is used for grilled chicken, and in another word, Tayaki is used for red bean cake in the shape of grilled fish.

Then what does it mean, Is this festival about grilling chicken and fish! Not really Yaki also means “control burning”, and this festival is all about burning the old grass present on the mountain.

Stories about how did this ritual start

There are a lot of stories about the origin of Wakarusa Yamazaki but there are two theories that explain the origin of the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival.

According to the first theory Wakakusa mountain is set on fire to destroy the habitat of wild boars because they were creating disturbance for the locals and the Wakakusa temples & shrines.

burning mountain

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The second theory talks about a story based on land claims between two temples. In 1760 two Buddhist temples: Tōdai-Ji and Kōfuku-Ji claimed the land of Wakakusa mountain as their property. The talks between the two temples were not enough to settle down the issue, so a third party Kasuga Taisha (neutral Shinto shrine) was included to settle the issue. But nothing worked, the talks broke down and the Wakakusa mountain is set on fire.

Celebrating the festival of a burning mountain

The festival is celebrated once a year on the 4th Saturday of January. The festival begins at noon, it includes a variety of different events that take place around the base of the mountain. Senbei crackers throwing competition is the most famous event of the festival. It takes place from 12:30 to 3:00 and attracts a lot of viewers.

In between 4:30 to 5:00 PM a march starts, people carrying a sacred fire departs from the Kasuga Taisha Shrine towards the mountain to lightening it on fire. The march is led by the head priests of Kasuga and makes several stops in local shrines on the way up to Wakakusa mountain. Around 5:30, the march arrives at the base of the Wakakusa mountain and a large sacred bonfire is lit. Till that time the base of the Wakakusa mountain was filled with thousands of spectators who came to participate in the festival.

march past

Around 6:15 a demonstration of a firework is held for about 15 minutes (which is canceled this year). Afterward, the fire from the sacred bonfire is used to set the old grass of the mountain on fire. If the weather is in favor It takes around half an hour to one hour for the entire grass to burn.

When the grass is dry, the burning process takes relatively less time unlikely last year. Last year it was raining from the start of the day, the grass was totally wet, and it took till the early morning to burn the whole mountainside.

The fire and the firework are visible throughout Nara city due to the altitude of the Wakakusa mountain. That is the beauty of this festival that creates day in the darkest night, and it can be enjoyed from further away.

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