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Only in Japan: Burning a Mountain as a Celebration

On the fourth Saturday of each January, the dead grass of Mount Wakakusa is set ablaze as part of a unique and impressive festival called Wakakusa Yamayaki (‘Wakakusa Burning Mountain’).

No one known exactly how the tradition of burning an entire 342-metre-high hill in Japan’s Nara Prefecture actually started, but one thing is for certain – it has been around for hundreds of years. Some say it began as a boundary dispute between the two greatest temples of Nara, Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji, sometime during the 18th century. When mediation failed, the entire hill was burned to the ground, although no one quite remembers how that solved anything. Another theory claims that the annual fire originated as a way to eliminate pests and drive away wild boars. Today, it’s just an impressive sight to behold that attracts tourists from all over the world.


Photo: 名古屋太郎/Wikimedia Commons

Wakakusa Yamayaki starts early in the day, with a competition of giant rice cracker throwing. It’s not until 5 pm that a procession departs from the Tobino area of Kasuga Taisha towards Mount Wakakusa, stopping at the Mizuya Shrine along the way in order to light the torches. At around half past five, the procession arrives at the base of the hill and a large bonfire is lit. After a 15-minute fireworks display, torches are lit from the bonfire and the dead grass is set ablaze.

Depending on the condition of the grass on Mount Wakakusa, it can take between 30 minutes and an hour for the entire area to burn. In wet conditions, the grass burns slowly and only in certain areas, whereas when it is dry, the blaze just covers up everything extremely fast.

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Because the fire burns over such a large area, it appears to light up the sky and can be seen for miles around! Hundreds of spectators gather at the base of Mount Wakakusa, but thousands more watch the blaze from within Nara city, as well as other vantage points in the area.

A special barrier prevents people from getting to close to the fire, and hundreds of volunteer firefighters are present just in case something goes wrong during the festival.

It’s not the most environmentally-friendly festival in the world, that’s for sure, but Wakakusa Yamayaki has a special place in the hearts of the people of Nara, Japan, so they probably won’t be giving up their centuries-old tradition anytime soon.

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