Gozan no Okuribi: A Burning Send-off

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.