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Friday, October 26, 2007

Kurama Fire Festival

fire-festival鞍馬火祭り

The annual Kurama Fire Festival was held on Monday night in the mountains north of Kyoto. Dating from 940 AD, it was until recently a rite of passage for the villagers of remote Kurama.

It is now mobbed with tourists and hundreds of Kyoto's men (and a few women) in blue, who are there to maintain order and keep drunks from getting too close to the bonfires.

Access is via the Eiden train line only; vehicle traffic along the narrow winding road up to the village is blocked by the police on the day of the festival.

Events begin as darkness falls, which at this time of year is at roughly 6 pm. The bonfires, known as kagaribi are lit in front of most of the houses in the village. Villagers parade up and down the main street holding taimatsu (pine torches). Children with the pine torches rush by saying "saireiya, sairyo!"

Later, massive pine torches (pictured above right) are carried along the same street. After a visit to the Yuki Shrine, at 8 pm, two portable shrines are carried on the shoulders of the participants.

The village is a tiny mountain hamlet that has been carved into a narrow valley. It is known for its hot spring and fall colors. The houses in the town are built almost flush against the road.

If you are averse to crowds and being yelled at, repeatedly, by cops--"Stand back, keep moving, here comes the fire, be careful, watch out!"--don't go.

kurama fire festival kyotoThe crush begins at the Eiden train's Demachiyanagi Station. On the day of the festival, ropes are set up to funnel the crowd onto the platform. Once on the train, it is a 30-minute Tokyo-like rush-hour ride up into the mountains.

At last, you think as you alight.

No, it has only begun: more yelling and directions await, much more. As you get to the main street, the crowds are herded 4-5 deep to the left side of the road. The people in the back are literally pressed against the houses. People hold their cameras above their heads in an attempt at taking pictures of the festival participants who pass on the right side of the road.

Because of the fires, the police push the rope--and crowd--back each time someone or something passes by during the proceedings.

The festival lasts until roughly midnight, and trains run late on this night.

Access

From Demachiyanagi, take the Eiden line to the final stop. A round-trip ticket costs 840 yen.

Advice

You should go early, at about 4 in the afternoon. That way you may be able to get a place from which to see the events. Also: take a jacket. Kurama is much colder than downtown Kyoto.

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