Signal Fires
08.21.2015, 1:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

IMG_4487all photos this post FOP, 2015 unless otherwise noted

I could see the mountain out my window everyday. For weeks  it seemed that everywhere I looked, there was Daimonji with its enormous 大 character peering back from above. The kanji shape etched into the mountain remains there year round.  It translates literally as “big” and is the location of the largest of the “send off fires” set ablaze each August 16th as part of O-Bon in Kyoto, Japan.

O-Bon is a time when spirits return home for several days and are then ceremoniously sent off via giant fires on five mountains surrounding Kyoto. These fires are said to guide spirits back to the “other side.”

tumblr_inline_nadt9eqt4g1sbmcvjimage 1864: the year Chizuru comes to Kyoto, 花洛名勝図会(元治)1864)年刊行より大文字送火〉

FOP has wanted to attend and experience the O-Bon fires for several years. From afar, we’ve considered the events as highly aesthetic practices for being with change. At its core, O-Bon is an ancient ritual that is predicated on acknowledging that someone is no longer materially in existence — and yet it also welcomes and celebrates their annual “return” — now in non-material form.

The four day holiday, culminating with the fires, seemed to not only be a process for meaningfully setting aside time to pause in highly personal and private ways to be with those who have passed on, but also to invite participation in something much larger than one’s individual family on a city, and even national, scale. It seems many people celebrate O-Bon both as a summer festival with dancing and food and as a traditional religious (Buddhist) holiday.

In Kyoto, the city prepares for the holiday weeks in advance. Countless stores offer special O-Bon sweets and theme-based gifts.

IMG_5358Daimonji wagashi (sweet) from Kagizen Yoshifusa, Kyoto, FOP 2015

When I came to Japan a month ago, I brought my own personal addenda to the O-Bon traditional theme. I came here wondering what O-Bon might offer humans in the age of the Anthropocene — and — if it might be expandable as a translated practice to include the non-human. I also wondered if O-Bon might offer inspiration and assistance for humans seeking aesthetic ways/practices for pausing with what we’re in the midst of losing ( human and nonhuman) on planet Earth at increasingly rapid rates. How might O-Bon reply to my question, “what does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?”

As the days passed, it became increasingly important that I actually climb Mt. Daimonji, experience the mountain’s forest and see the infrastructure that supports the fire here before August 16th arrived.

Japan’s tectonically active landscape is full of steep cliffs and mountains. Its mountains are well-known for being sites for monks to retreat when undergoing ascetic training. Luckily Lonely Planet had rated the Daimonji hike as an “easy” one, so I felt as though I might have a chance of making it to the top.

daimonjiMt. Daimonji, via Google Maps

Still, summer weather in Japan is a force unto itself. When I arrived in mid-July, Typhoon #11 had just arrived too. This pretty much marked the end of the rainy season and the start of “mutsu-atsui” (sultry humidity) weather, which features humidity around 80% day and night. Before arriving, I admit I did not fully appreciate the degree to which sticky, oppressive heat can affect a body. Even with hats, umbrellas and sunscreen, it’s typical to sweat through clothing within minutes of stepping outside.

So in recognition of this newly lived reality,  I decided to begin my climb up Mt. Daimonji at 5am on August 1st, 2015. I hoped that I could climb the mountain and descend before the temperature passed 90F.



I was a bit unnerved to begin this climb alone. One friend had commented, with a smile, that despite being an “easy” climb  often done by schoolchildren, the recent typhoon had probably brought out the snakes.

But I was soon set at ease, and humbled, by the number of people, most of them 20-30 years my senior, already well on their way to the top at 5:30am, despite the heat and humidity.


On the way up, the forest was a cacophony of cicadas, bird calls and flowing water — as well as hikers’ shouts of “good morning” to one another.

IMG_4513wood, presumably left over from last year’s fire.

IMG_4545where the O-Bon wood arrives

During the climb (staircase after staircase) I was able to observe the minimal infrastructure that affords the fires each August. Pulleys, levers and a small loading area shuttles a great deal of wood to the staging area. It was wonderful to encounter this spare infrastructure within a dense forest filled with ferns and running streams — and existing for no other reason than to offer guiding lights for spirits — and in the process bringing light to the millions watching down below.

I reached the summit around 6:45 am.

As I completed my last few steps, I could hear what sounded like a radio program with children counting in Japanese. Turning the corner to the top I was greeted by 10-12 people, who seemed to be friendly strangers, completely immersed in a morning radio calisthenics program. They were facing the morning sun and all of Kyoto spread before us.


I had arrived in the center of the giant 大.




The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. The heat incredible. The sense of arrival profound. After the exercises were completed, one man happily informed me that he was 73. Everyone on the mountain that morning, despite being red faced from the ascent, was proud, alive and feeling strong. Their connection to this place and desire to climb this mountain, clearly on a regular basis, was humbling. In this way, I felt like my arrival to the center of the 大 was also a point of contact with a worldview that thrives within this particular demographic in Japan — an outlook that honors and respects the natural world through an intimate and joyful engagement with it.

Countless mornings, due to jet lag, I had been up at dawn and witnessed aging Japanese people sweeping their local sidewalks, silently bowing towards the sun and taking early morning walks.  At the top of Mt. Daimonji I realized that this mountain isn’t a location that is merely activated on August 16th, it’s alive and loved by local people all year round.


Sixteen days later I am standing at the base of Daimonji. The sun is setting just after a storm and the O-Bon fires are scheduled to begin in less than an hour.

My question, “what does it take to be with what is right now disappearing, or perhaps is already gone?” has become less urgent.

Over the past month I’ve been newly reminded that life isn’t about obsessing about what is about to slip away. Change is constant. While in Japan I have been simultaneously more “exposed” and “at home” in relation to highly variable environmental contexts than during any other time in my adult life. Architecture in Japan, even modern, doesn’t isolate humans from the elements as much as slightly buffer us from them. People dry laundry outside, they rarely use air-conditioning, they have walls and doors that are open to the outside year-round. Here, it’s not about keeping the outside out — it’s about maintaining a frequent and lively exchange between inside and outside, human and nonhuman.

During several of my language classes this past month, we would briefly pause to notice some new, often incredible, insect that had just wandered into the room from outside. Through what some might call an “accommodation” in bodily comfort, here, humans gain a lived sensation of being in relation to environment and its varying forces.  One feels, lives, even celebrates great variation in seasonality rather than trying to control it. One lives change and inherently senses that life lived in relation to environments that are beyond human control is not a failure of design, or will.

I now realize that my original question was mistakenly focused on the end point of “gone”  — a time of being “too late.” But ongoing change, even change that includes physical death, doesn’t signal an “ending” for everyone and everything.

It sounds basic, but what it takes to truly be alive with “what is right now changing irrevocably” is actually the challenge.  In a time of very real and increasing extinction of lifeforms and intensification of planetary volatility, serious questions arise about how we might not take for granted the world we are a part of — while being able to acknowledge the scale of changes unfolding.

In this way, practices that invite humans to experience and directly live, rather than be cut off from, a highly variable environments seem all the more essential for living meaningfully with change.

So, as the O-Bon fires begin, I know that what I am seeing and feeling is not what Japanese people around me are seeing and feeling. Down here on the street, there is a light-hearted feeling of a summer festival, popsicles, beer and laughter. I also sense that those who are up on Mt. Diamonji right now, having ascended the mountain to ignite the fires, are having a very different experience.

“At last and they reached the peak of Diamonji mountain … and he could look down from the heights, and there down below — completely encompassing the horizon — was in actuality the entire city, darkness had by this point almost completely fallen, the lights were burning down below in the distance already, and they didn’t say anything; he, because the sight left him at a complete loss for words, and Kawamoto because he was afraid that he was showing this in vain, that his friend — who had helped him form a connection between his solitary life in the world, due to which he owed him eternal gratitude — didn’t understand, and it wasn’t possible to explain: here on the peak of Diamonji, this was not the world of words; this gigantic evening picture of the city encircled by mountains said, without a single word, everything that he wanted to tell his friend before bidding farewell: an evening picture as a glimmer of twlight was disappearing into nothingness, and darkness finally descended, down below there was an enormous city, with the tiny lights of it stars setting out an enormous surface for itself, and up here above were the two of them …  although he was pleased that his friend wasn’t talking and was only staring down below with dazzled eyes here from the heights, he was also aware that it was in vain, this friend saw nothing, the Western eye only saw the firefly-like sparkling of the evening city, but nothing of what he wanted to tell him, of what this hopeless, solitary, trembling land was signaling to one from down there below, certainly this place merely signified to him the wonderous gardens, the wonderous monasteries, and the wonderous mountains all around, so that Kawamoto had already turned around, and set off on the path leading downward…”  — Laszlo Krasznahorkai from, Seibo There Below‘The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine’ p.420



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