Each year, on August 16 as the culmination of Obon, five massive burning characters appear on the mountains surrounding Kyoto once the sun sets and night has settled in. Gozan no Okuribi, or The Lighting of Fires after Dark, is the final hurrah of Obon with the smoke rising from the giant bonfires said to guide the spirits of the dead back to heaven. These fires are seriously massive-- visible from miles away in Nakagyo Ward in the heart of Kyoto. Even when they aren’t lit, the cleared out sites for the annual fires can be seen during the day time.
The signature fires of Gozan no Okuribi begin to come to life at 8pm, once the sun has set. The first to be lit is 大 (dai), which translates to “great” or “big” and appears on Mount Daimonji. The next two, 妙 and 法 (myo and ho), which translate to “wondrous dharma” and are a reference to Buddhism, appear ten minutes later on Mt. Mantoro and Mt. Daikokuten respectively. Just five minutes after that, Funagata, or the shape of a ship appears on Mt. Myoken, at the same time Left-Side Dai (大 again) is lit on Mt. Ookita. Finally, Toriigata, or the shape of a Torii gate, is lit on the side of Mt. Mandara at 8:20. The fires burn together for about 40 minutes before being put out and are quite a sight to behold.
Despite its position as an enduring tradition, the origins of Gozan no Okuribi are somewhat obscure. There is no written history detailing the beginning of the festival-- only some guesswork made by historians. Lighting fires in some way has been a popular tradition for Obon for hundreds of years, and it is generally thought that at some point, as cities got larger, community members got together to light large fires on mountain sides so they could be witnessed by people living in the more densely populated urban areas and enjoyed regardless of whether or not people had room to safely light a fire. Some records indicate that bonfires in the shape of characters were lit near many different cities during Gozan no Okuribi up until the Meiji period. Around that time, character shaped bonfires started to fall out of favor and today Gozan no Okuribi takes place only in Kyoto.
Viewing spots are scattered throughout Kyoto, with different ones providing better views of some characters over others, but the most popular areas to see the fires are in Nakagyo Ward, and along the banks of the Kamo river. These areas provide the best view to see all of the fires once they have been lit. For this year, 2020, Gozan no Okuribi will still happen, but in a significantly scaled down form, with only a few fires lit per location. In this way, the tradition will continue to endure for years to come.