I’m lucky enough to call the historic city of Kyoto my home, but it’s also a destination that features on the majority of our Small Group Tours and also in the tailored Self Guided Adventures that we put together for independent travellers. Not only is Kyoto a fantastic place to spend a few days exploring, but it’s also a great base for making day trips, and the ancient capital of Nara is probably the easiest and most popular option.
I visited Nara last weekend to check out the annual Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, in which Mt. Wakakusa in Nara is set ablaze! This is an event that takes place on the 4th Saturday in January every year (although it’s re-scheduled for the following Saturday in cases of heavy rain), so you’ll need to wait until January 23rd 2016 if you want to attend (although there are some pictures below to whet your appetite!). In the meantime, I’d also like to let you know my top tip for enhancing a day trip to Nara that you can enjoy year round!
Nara is located just 45 minutes from Kyoto by train (and if you’re travelling with a Japan Rail Pass, you can use your pass to make the journey at no extra cost). Although there’s plenty to see and do in Nara, it’s possible to see the main sights in half a day, so my top tip is to stop off on the way at Obaku station to visit one of Kyoto prefecture’s hidden treasures – Manpuku-ji.
Manpuku-ji is a Zen temple belonging to the Obaku school of Zen. There are three schools of Zen; Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. The Rinzai and Soto schools are the largest, with Rinzai temples traditionally having had more of a stronghold in the cities (most of the Zen temples in Kyoto belong to the Rinzai school) and the Soto school being more prevalent in rural areas. The Obaku school is a much smaller and lesser known school, and although all schools of Zen made their way to Japan via China, the Obaku school retained far more of its Chinese characteristics, which is reflected in much of the temple’s architecture. This makes it a particularly interesting temple to visit. Let’s have a look why… Let the photo blog begin!
From Kyoto station it takes just 25 minutes to get to Obaku station on the JR Nara Line. Make sure you take a ‘Local’ train (rather than the faster ‘Rapid’ service, which sails through Obaku and heads straight on toward Nara!)
From directly outside the station, Manpuku-ji is clearly signposted. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk there from the station.
On entering the temple complex, you’ll be greeted by the Sanmon – the ‘Mountain Gate’. Even though many temples in Japan are not actually located on mountains, they are regarded as being on metaphorical peaks. This is in keeping with the fact that the first Zen temples in China were located in such environs.
After passing through the Sanmon (and paying the entrance fee – 500yen for adults), the first building you will encounter is the Tennouden, where you will find this chap enshrined. Many people will recognise him as the ‘Laughing Buddha’, so often found in Chinese restaurants, although in fact he’s not a representation of the historical Buddha. He’s actually Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, known as Hotei in Japan and Budai in China. His bulging belly emphasises his association with good luck, wealth and happiness.
Throughout the temple complex you will find architecture that’s a little different to that found at other Buddhist temples in Japan. These white walls and curvaceous doorways are an example of the temple’s lingering Chinese influence.
Dotted around the complex you will also come across various instruments which are used to regulate the daily schedule. This is the ‘Umpan’, or ‘Cloud Plate’. It’s rung at a variety of times during the day, but is primarily used to announce mealtimes, therefore you will usually find it outside the ‘Kuri’, the temple’s kitchen.
Another instrument that you’ll come across is the ‘Mokugyo’ or ‘Wooden Fish’. The fish is hollow and struck with a wooden mallet, which produces a pleasant ‘clonk’ sound. The mokugyo at Manpuku-ji is prized as a particularly fine specimen – not least for its impressive size!
One final temple instrument to look out for is the ‘Han’, a solid wooden block struck with a mallet, which produces a hard ‘clack’ sound. The main use of this instrument is to announce that ‘zazen’ seated meditation will begin shortly. Inscribed on the han is a reminder to the monks of the importance of the monastic life:
‘Birth and Death is a great matter.
Life is fleeting.
Wake up to this fact!
And do not allow yourself to waste time!’
A great motto for everyone, Buddhist or not!
One final thing that Manpuku-ji is famous for are the fences that surround the buildings, which are based on swastika designs. Although the swastika now has sinister associations in the West following its appropriation by the Nazi party, it has a benign history going back thousands of years in Asia. It began as a sacred Hindu symbol of auspiciousness that was later adopted by Buddhism. Although it’s a little tricky to make out the swastika pattern in this fence…
… it’s much easier in this one!
All in all, Manpuku-ji is highly worth a visit. The grounds are large and extensive, and the borrowed scenery is beautiful. Another huge bonus is that compared to the large crowds that are drawn to the major temples in central Kyoto, you’re likely to have this wonderful place almost to yourself!
Having stopped off in Obaku to visit Manpuku-ji, it’s just a short walk back to Obaku station to continue on to Nara. Although you can take a local line train from Obaku station straight there, you can shave 10 minutes off your journey by getting off at Uji, the next station, and hopping onto the next Rapid Service train, which takes less than half an hour.
Even though I stopped off at Manpuku-ji, I still made it to Nara just before lunchtime. There are lots of great restaurants offering great value lunch deals lining the roads from JR Nara station to Nara Park in the centre of the city, where you will find the majority of Nara’s sights.
Although I was visiting Nara for the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, I still had time to visit Nara’s main attractions before the main event kicked off. Let the photo blog re-commence!
Todai-ji temple (the largest wooden structure in the world!) looked as beautiful as ever, even with my ugly mug blocking the view!
I recommend swinging by the Nigatsu-do, one of Todai-ji’s sub-temples. It has a balcony on stilts that gives a great view over Nara Park…
…and entrance is free! Always a bonus!
After taking in some of Nara’s year-round attractions. I headed over to Mt. Wakakusa (more of a very large hill, really!) to watch one of the festival’s rather unique events…
This is the ‘Deer Cracker Throwing Tournament’. Hundreds of people line up to throw giant ‘senbei’ rice crackers frisbee style to crowds of eagerly awaiting deer. People whose crackers travel furthest are eligible for a prize!
The next event in the festival schedule takes place at a big bonfire, the fuel for which is provided by members of the public bringing their New Year’s decorations from their recently completed winter festivities to be burnt.
After a short ceremony, a torch is lit from the fire…
… and from the torch three lanterns are lit. There is one lantern representing each of Nara’s main religious sites; Todai-ji temple, Kofuku-ji temple, and Kasuga shrine. The lanterns are then paraded through Nara Park towards Mt. Wakakusa.
Along the way, Shinto priests in fabulous outfits accompany the procession and play music using conch shells. Although it might be hard to believe from listening to it, the noises aren’t random – that’s sheet music tucked into the conch case!
On arrival back at the base of Mt. Wakakusa, there were 300 of Nara’s firefighters getting ready to do the exact opposite of their day job – to set fire to the mountain!
While we were waiting for the sun to set, there were fantastic views across Nara to be had from the side of the mountain!
Once it was dark, the fire from the three lanterns was used to set fire to another bonfire! The whole festival is essentially a big fire relay!
While the bonfire got going, we were treated to a truly spectacular 15 minute firework display… Did I mention entrance is free? Bonus!
Of course an event like this is bound to attract the crowds, but that’s what provides the festival atmosphere! Luckily I managed to get a spot right at the front!
With the fireworks finished, it was time to get down to the main business of setting the mountain on fire. In the next stage of the fire relay, the firefighters took torches lit from the bonfire and set fire to the grass on the edge of the mountain. It started off slow…
… but thanks to the dry conditions, the fire quickly spread to envelop the whole mountainside!
Although the fire can sometimes last for nearly an hour, the dry conditions meant that the whole mountain was scorched within about 15 minutes, and it was time to head home.
The origins of the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival are a little obscure. Some say that it evolved as a means of settling boundary conflicts between the different temples in Nara, while another view holds that it was a method to keep away wild boars. In any case, it’s a unique and spectacular event, and well worth attending if you’re in the Kansai area at the end of January. Of course, at any other time of year Nara is still a great place to visit as a day trip from Kyoto, but don’t forget to stop off at Obaku to visit Manpuku-ji on the way!
Filed under: Festival, Sightseeing | Tagged: Fire festival, Kyoto daytrip, Nara, Yamayaki | Leave a comment »