It was about that time to decide what kind of sightseeing and adventure I would embark on as the weekend got closer. I overheard a couple of my friends and dorm buddies say that they were going to go hiking on Kurama Mountain, which is in the northern outskirts of Kyoto, and then go to the Fire Festival which was in the same area. I decided to join them as it sounded interesting and fun.
As we arrived, there was a red statue that resembled a demon with a long nose. As we kept walking we encountered the scene being prepared for the festival which was to start that evening at 6pm. The festival was going to be held at the base Kurama Mountain. We began our hike up the famous mountain, passing the main gate of Kurama Temple. The climb ahead was steep and rather long. It took three hours for us to finish our hike. Along the way, we encountered various smaller shrines and what looked like statues. One in particular was in a spiral shape that got bigger the more the spirals went downward. I decided to let my friends go further on and I stayed a little behind to enjoy the hike and take my time. Reaching the peak of the mountain enabled us to view the beautiful landscape- the scenery it offered was definitely worth it.
The main temple is at the peak and the atmosphere was very tranquil. One could only hear the wind. After resting for a while, we decided to go hike back down and get something to eat. We decided on hot Soba, Japanese noodles, as it was the closest restaurant to the vicinity. It was actually exactly what I needed as the day was a little cold and the hot Soba settled me down. I remember the view outside from the restaurant was amazing, overlooking a river bank. It was very relaxing as we rested from the hike.
As we still had a lot of time before the festival at night, we decided to hike to the area and relax at an onsen; public hot bath. These are very popular in Japan and intrinsically embedded in their culture. Luckily, the way there was going downhill and thus, easier. Me and Jochen, a German friend, lost the group as we stayed back watching a bird take a shower and swim in the river.
As it was my first time experiencing an onsen, I do have to admit I was a little nervous.. being naked in such a setting in my culture is not common at all and I was not aware of the bathing etiquette. I only knew that Japanese had some type of decorum when public bathing. Outside, we had to buy two towels, one big towel which we were going to use to dry ourselves and a small towel to rest on our foreheads. In addition, that same towel can be used for covering your nether region when moving within the public bath. Although there are a couple of exceptions, most public baths in Japan are gender divided and this was no exception. After we undressed and put all our belongings into our locker, we had to go to a different section where they had showers in order for us to wash ourselves thoroughly. Some onsens supply the soap and shampoo to shower, but for others you have to bring your own. Luckily, thanks to the help of friends who already experienced this and a very helpful Japanese stranger who knew English, it wasn’t a hassle at all. Finally, we were able to relax soaking ourselves in the hot bath. From the bamboo style architecture of the bath to the scenery, it looked like a scene right out of a Japanese movie. There was a small section of the bath that was roofed but most of it was left uncovered, where the mountains and nature of Kurama instantly took the spotlight.
We left the onsen about the time the festival was programmed to start. There is this certain feeling of peace and relaxation when you just get out of the onsen that overwhelms you, especially after a days’ worth of hiking.
It was already dark and we could see torches, ranging from small in size to huge, set aflame in front of villager’s houses. The biggest torches had to be handled by two men. You could see many homes displaying family heirlooms such as Samurai armors. This instantly got my attention as I am a fan of Samurais and simply couldn’t believe that I was admiring such a piece of authentic Japanese culture and tradition. What also impacted me was the fact that, supervised by their parents, even children with small torches participate in the festival.
Every family lights up the fires and pine torches with the call “Jinji ni mai rasshare.” They then proceed to walk down the roads displaying the torches with the call “Sai rei ya, Sai ryou”, which literally means ‘festival, festival’. They were all in sync with the call and the rhythm as they displayed the torches. They all headed towards the village temple and the crowds followed after. In front of the temple, they enacted a ritual by swinging the torches from side to side all while continuing to make the festival call. The whole village was a part of this and seeing the unison, not just from the community, but also from the families impacted me. It made me realize just how deeply embedded this festival and tradition is in Kurama. Soon after, we departed back to our dorms.