daimonji

12Nov05
Sometime during the middle of August, I can’t remember the precise date now, Richard and I rode the train to Kyoto for the Daimonji festival, a festival in which five large bonfires are lit on the mountainsides around the city to mark the ending of Obon. Obon is the period of time in August when the spirits of the dead return to visit the living. This is a very important family holiday and many people return to their hometown to clean the graves of their ancestors, and to visit with relatives (both living and dead). For Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (the full name of the festival), five characters are set alight on five different mountains surrounding Kyoto. Before the city was as built up as it is now, it was easy to view all five characters at once, but now there are only a few prime viewing spots. Apparently Daimonji Gozan Okuribi means “big characters / five mountains / sending off fires.” The idea is that the spirits of the dead, who never really go away, come down from the mountains during Obon and are sent off with a series of fires which both honor them and guide them home. Since both my father and my grandfather passed away earlier in the year, Obon was a very thoughtful time for me and I really wanted to go to the Daimonji festival to view the spirit-guiding fires.
Richard and I decided to try to get up close to one of the characters, rather than trying to view all five, and we chose to approach the “dai” (大) in “daimonji.” There are, however, two “dai”s — there is a large one (the one on Mt. Daimonji) and a smaller one (the “hidari dai” or left-hand side dai) located near Kinkaku-ji, the famed Golden Pavilion. I believe Richard and I ended up viewing the hidari dai, though I’m really not sure because I haven’t visited Kyoto enough to have a real sense of its geographical space. In any case we took the subway, followed the crowds, and ended up with a pretty good view of the 大. In fact, though it doesn’t show up in any of the pictures, we were close enough to see that the “dai” was composed of a series of enormous individual torches. These torches are apparently lit simultaneously by Buddhist monks who sit on the mountain waiting for the signal to be given. We arrived soon after the fires had been lit and we were able to watch for a good twenty minutes or so before the fires began to die off a little and we decided to walk around some more.
We followed the crowds partway back to the subway station and then wandered into a park where we had a nice view of the city. Though we didn’t see any more flaming characters, we did enjoy a couple of freshly-vended drinks and the summer speech of the cicadas.
This is my favorite shot of the Daimonji series, and I’m really glad that I actually took the effort to break out the Voigtlander and my tripod to get this. What I especially like about this shot is the ghosting effect of people walking and pausing in front of the camera as the film is exposed. Since Daimonji comes at the end of the Obon festival — the period of time when the spirits of the dead return to visit the living — these film ghosts take on a special quality.
Here’s a nice shot of a woman wearing festival yukata approaching a wall of vending machines. Unfortunately I hadn’t yet figured out everything about my new digital camera, so I inadvertently took this shot at pretty substandard resolution.
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