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The Last Night of Obon (A Kyoto Tale) background

A couple of posts ago I said that I’d talk about The last Night of Obon (A Kyoto Tale). Here you go, fact and fiction merged together – rather clumsily, to be honest, but it is my third rewrite by now and I want to be done with it.


Obon (お盆) or Obon Matsuri is a festival celebrated in August in Japan when one honours the spirits of the family’s ancestors. Born from the Buddhist-Confucian custom has become a week during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. It is believed that the the spirits of said ancestors come back to the world of the living to visit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan since approximately the 1500s.

Gozan no Okuribi (五山送り火), more commonly known as Daimonji (大文字), is celebrated in Kyoto as the culmination of the Obon festival. Five large fires are lit in different areas of Kyoto and are believed to guide the spirits that come visit for Obon back to the spirit world. It is thought that Gozan no Okuribi is older than Obon, and at some point both of them came together.

The fires are lit from east to west starting at 8pm, and each of them has a different meaning. The first of them to be lit is the East (or Right) Daimonji (大文字), with the character 大 (dai = big or great). The second fire is double; it reads 妙法 (Myoho = “the supreme law” in Buddhism). The third is called 舟形 (Funagata) and has the shape of a boat (fune = boat); it is supposed to represent the travelling of the spirits. The Hidari Daimonji (左大文字 = Left Daimonji) has a 大 (dai) symbol again and is the fourth fire, just above the famous Kinkaku-ji. Finally, the fifth fire represents a torii gate or 鳥居形 (Toriigata). All fires burn together for a few minutes and then are put out in the same order they were lit (See the map).

As ancient as the Gozan no Okuribi are the Four Guardian Beasts of Kyoto. Born from human belief and the dust of stars, these mythological beings guard each frontier of the Old Capital. They are the Azure Dragon Seiryu (青竜) of the East, the Vermilion Bird Suzaku (朱雀) of the South, the White Tiger Byakko (白虎) of the West, and the Black Tortoise Genbu (玄武) of the North.

The Guardian Beasts have nowadays become a legend, but they are very much real. However, they avoid being seen as they don’t consider this world “their world” any more. They can however be found in their lesser forms, roaming the city sometimes. The dragon Seiryu can turn into a lizard or a man with long hair and azure eyes with slit pupils, the firebird Suzaku flies as a red bird or walks as a redhead human with claw-like hands; the tiger Byakko can camouflage as a black and white tabby or a man with a long fluffy tail; finally Genbu can show as a regular turtle or a man with a hard shell-like plate covering his back.

The mission of the four beasts is to guard the city from the souls who come back during Obon and whose power is released in the Gozan no Okuribi. They present themselves as targets and protect the foolish humans who call upon the restless souls without realising it. Without them, the bodiless souls would turn upon their descendants and suck the life force out of them.

According to the legends, the Beasts live in their area of the city, from where they fight when Gozan no Okuribi starts.

Seiryu dwells in the lake of Fushimi Inari Taisha to the East (light blue mark on the map)

Suzaku nests in the Kamikawa Temple (no picture I can legally use, sorry) to the South of the city (reddish mark on the map)

Byakko roams the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest to the West (yellow mark on the map)

Finally, Genbu lives underneath the lake found in the Golden Pavillion / Kinkaku-ji Temple (purple mark on the map)

Lately, however, the Beasts seem to be losing power. The Dragon and the Turtle need to sleep the winter away, the Tiger is restless and the Vermilion Bird can’t seem to find a proper place to rest. In this day and age humans don’t believe in them any more. Immortal beings can die if nobody feeds their existence with belief.

The proverbial clock is tickling, and Obon is drawing near yet another summer…

Sources and Credits: Obon [link]; Gozan no Okuribi [link]; Genbu attribution and licence [link]

Disclaimer: Some truth with lots of fiction here. Don’t take to heart.

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2 responses to “The Last Night of Obon (A Kyoto Tale) background

  1. Jake Adelstein (@jakeadelstein) January 3, 2013 at 20:54

    I liked this very much. I can’t tell where truth and fiction end in this story but would you care to submit it to @japansubculture? We’d certainly publish it and have published fiction in the past. (It has to be about Japan or related to it). This was our article on O-bon this year. Not authoritative at all but I find the holiday very interesting and I liked the story.
    http://www.japansubculture.com/o-bon-festival-of-the-dead-or-please-feed-the-hungry-ghosts-day/

    • Sakaki Delijah January 3, 2013 at 23:41

      It is mostly fiction sprinkled with one or two real facts. I combined some elements of truth to buy an aura of credibility, but in the end is just a fantasy story thought up as I walked down (or up) Fushimi Inari Taisha. I would be delighted to share this with @japansubculture since O-bon is indeed a very interesting holiday – although of course I am terribly biased ^^