Every year in August the people of Japan welcome the spirits of their ancestors back to the corporeal world. They visit and tend to their family graves, and prepare and serve food for the souls of departed loved ones – this is the O-Bon holiday, and is the season of ghost stories and family reunions. In Kyoto the end of O-Bon is marked by the Gozanokuribi (五山送り火), five huge bonfires in the shapes of Kanji (Chinese characters) and other symbols which are lit on mountainsides around the city to show the visiting spirits the way back to the other side. Depending where you are in the city you may or may not be able to see some of these, but there are various viewpoints people flock to in order to catch a glimpse. The most popular of these is from the bridges outside Demachiyanagi (出町柳) station (Keihan line), from where there’s a clear view of the first and most celebrated of the fires to be lit. This is the character Dai, 大, located high on the hill behind the Silver Temple, and that hill is known as Daimonjiyama (大文字山, Mt Daimonji). There are actually two 大 bonfires; the other is located across town on the hill behind the Golden Temple.
These posters show the designs of all 5 bonfires:
(There are actually 6, but 妙法 is a single word and those 2 characters are a pair on the same mountain, and thus counted as a single bonfire)
To be honest I didn’t particularly enjoy it when I went to Demachiyanagi to view the Mt Daimonji bonfire – although it is cool to see this huge flaming Kanji blazing away in the darkness above the rooftops, it was absurdly crowded and absurd crowds wind me up! Except during O-Bon, though, Daimonjiyama is a great place for a hike (in fact I think it’s completely closed off around O-Bon).
The Daimonjiyama hike is one of the most accessible in Kyoto with the trail starting just round the corner from the Silver Temple, and it brings you up to one of the city’s best viewpoints i.e. the clearing where the bonfire is set. It’s also interesting to see the bonfire pits up close (the kanji is actually a series of smaller bonfires arranged in formation) and the shrine at their centre, and get a feel for just how massive the Mt Daimonji bonfire actually is.
It only takes about 45 minutes to walk up – the Daimonjiyama trail’s pretty steep but well-maintained and nothing too strenuous… a lot of people walk their dogs up here!
To find the Daimonjiyama trail, start from the front gate of Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Temple), turning north (left, if you’re facing towards the temple):
Walk a short distance towards the stone torii shrine gate you can see ahead of you:
At the torii turn right and walk a short distance again to a fork in the path:
Take the right fork, and you’re on your way! (The left fork just leads to a dead end at a high school)
Head on up past the parking area & vending machine and alongside this stream:
The hiking trail proper starts from this bridge:
From there you hike steeply up through the forest until you emerge at the bonfire site:
If you climb to the top of the 大 character you can keep walking up into the forest; this path goes up to the summit proper of Daimonjiyama (the bonfire is set well below the summit). If you do this you’re rewarded with an even better view, although I don’t have any good photos of it as I’ve only been up there with a camera at night or in daylight with no camera… but here’s the (badly photographed) night view to give you an idea:
Daimonjiyama is located along a diversion from the main route of the Kyoto Isshu Trail, so if you’ve climbed all the way up to the summit you can either descend the way you came, or continue onwards to join the Kyoto Isshu Trail at trail board 45 to descend down to the Philospher’s Path near its southern end towards Nanzen-ji. If you take the path heading south-east from the summit viewpoint and walk 100m you’ll find the trail board at the Daimonjiyama Yotsutsuji (大文字山四ツ辻) intersection, and from there you can follow the trail boards (in descending order) to trail board 33 at Himukai-Daijingu shrine, a short distance from where you started at the top of Keage Incline (or alternatively for a faster descent to the Philosopher’s Path follow the trail boards straight down to board 48).
If you’re going to do this I strongly recommend getting the Isshu Trail map, see here. Also if you’re walking the other way along the Kyoto Isshu Trail Higashiyama section (from Keage to Mt Hiei) you can detour north at trail board 45 to the summit of Daimonjiyama and then descend via the bonfire site to the Silver Temple & Philosopher’s Path (where you can pick up the Isshu Trail again).
For more Kyoto hikes, see here
For hiking in the Tokyo area, see here
Have you done the Daimonjiyama hike, or do you have any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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