Saturday, November 24, 2012

Kurama Fire Festival

October 22 is a good day to be in Kyoto. Aside from the famous Jidai Festival, there is another interesting festival held on the same day - the Kurama Fire Festival (Kurama Hi Matsuri). While the Jidai Festival is held during the day, Kurama Fire Festival happens in the evening, so you get a full day of activities!

The Fire Festival however, is held in the village of Kurama, 30-45 min away from Kyoto by train. The village itself, is a delightful "traditional wooden houses" village, and makes for a good visit on its own. The festival is a ritual where huge pine torches are used to guide spirits between the realm of the living and the dead. It begins at 6pm where the houses in the village would light up with watch fires at their entrances. Then the local residents would get their young children to bear small pine torches and conduct a procession ceremony through the village chanting "Sai rei ya, Sai ryou" (which means "festival, good festival!"). Subsequently, the men (in traditional costume of loincloth and a strange half-shirt) would do similar, with huge pine torches, some weighing 100kg! Two portable shrines are then paraded through the streets and eventually, enshrined at a place called "Otabisho". On October 23, another ceremony takes place where these portable shrines are then taken down and enshrined at the Yuki jinja shrine.

Festival start off with young children bearing small pine torches
The adults carry a much bigger torch!!
It's heavier than it looks! And note the interesting attire they are wearing
Starting procession with portable shrines

A few notes and information to people (esp photographers) making a trip to see the festival.
- Aside from the fires, there are very little other lighting. So generally, there will be big differences in lighting in your scenes.
- Due to the crowds, the whole site is heavily policed with very restricted lanes for tourists to move in. You will be literally herded in a "path" designated for tourists.
- This festival is a traditional local festival - it is not something designed for tourists. So bear that in mind. While you may want to capture a promising frame, respect the people and festival, and not interfere/interrupt the procession. Moreover, it's very chaotic, smoky, and fires burning everywhere, so safety is important.
- A tripod is not practical for this festival (esp the limited space) though a monopod may be useful.
- There will be ALOT of waiting. Right from the start at Kyoto. At Demachiyanagi station on the Eizan Railway in Kyoto, I arrived at 5pm. The queue was spilling out of the station, and I waited till 6.45pm before I could board the tiny local train to Kurama. The festival runs till 12 midnight, and after 8pm, the frequency of trains back to Kyoto was also reduced. So similarly, I had to wait more than an hour for the train back, boarding my train at 10+pm.
- Due to the crowds and the limited space in the village and the designated tourist "lanes", sometimes you could get stuck in the "queues" for 10-20 minutes without moving!

So, if you are very adverse to crowds in smoky environment, or have little patience for waiting, then perhaps you have to think twice about this festival. Other than that, the Kumara Fire Festival is certainly one of the more interesting festivals in Japan!

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