Kurama is a pretty onsen town in the mountains north of Kyoto. We visited on the 22nd October, during our second visit to Japan, because we had heard about the annual fire festival held in the town. We had been warned that the event could get a little raucous, and that it was better to get there early. We wanted to watch the Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto, though, so we didn’t set off until mid-afternoon.
That was our first mistake. The train from Demachi Yanagi station in Kyoto was rammed. Standing room only for the 30 minute journey up into the mountains. As we left Kyoto, we thought the journey would be straight through, as the train was so tightly packed. We hadn’t taken into consideration the Japanese determination to cram as many bodies as possible into a groaning-at-the-seams train carriage, though, and at almost every stop on the way up additional people tried to get on. I was barely able to keep my hand on one of the support rails, we were so tightly packed. Not that it mattered. I think that, if I had fainted, the crush of bodies would have been enough to keep me upright.
When we arrived at Kurama, everything seemed calm, if a little busy. People were milling about, looking in the two shops at the entrance to the station car park, resting at the side of the road through the town. A red-faced Tengu greeted us as we made our way from the train station to the town centre.
Tengu are Shinto spirits that are often depicted in the form of a bird of prey. Early pictures of tengu show them with a hooked, hawkish beak, but as time has gone by this has been transformed into a very long nose. They used to be seen as harbingers of war, but today are viewed as protective spirits who guard mountains and forests.
We decided that we would head up the mountain to look at the shrines and temples that the town is famous for. We took the cable car half way up the mountain, then started to walk. The steps up the mountain were lined with crimson lanterns, and seemed to stretch on forever.
We got about halfway up the mountain, stopping off at large and small temples and shrines along the way, and then twilight started to fall. It got chillier up the mountain as well, so we headed back down, hitting the key shrine at the bottom of the mountain just as the priest was finishing the ceremony to bless the shrine.
At that point we made our second mistake. We decided to try to get some food before the festival properly got under way. We quickly discovered that there were only two places selling food, and that both of them were heavily over-subscribed. I started to queue up, while R went off to see whether he could find any other sources of food. Mistake number 3. Once he had gone past the police guarding the entrance to the station, he wasn’t allowed back, but was funnelled down a narrow pathway towards the bottom of the town. Nobody seemed to speak English, and his Japanese wasn’t good enough to explain that he needed to get back to his wife, so it took him ages to get back to where I was waiting. By the time he did return, I’d been seated, fended off two invading parties of older Japanese women who were eyeing up my vacant chair, and managed to explain to the staff that I didn’t know where my husband was. (In case you ever need to do the same, just say “Watashi no otto wo mi ushinatte shimaimashita” – 私の夫を見失ってしまいました – which means “It seems that I have unfortunately lost my husband.” When combined with a mime of fingers walking away from you followed by a shrug, this will not only impress the person to whom you are speaking, it will make them laugh at the silly gaijin.)
The food was worth the blind sense of panic, it has to be said. Possibly the best kitsune udon I’ve ever had.
Stomachs filled, we then joined the throngs gathering at the bottom of the approach to the station, only to be shuffled around and moved backwards and forwards by the police, who seemed not to know what they were doing but were trying to make up for it by waving fluorescent batons around and shouting through megaphones.
Gradually, we worked out that we needed to go back along the narrow path that R had been sent down earlier, where we emerged into the town to find families standing outside their homes around braziers, preparing giant pine torches that they then started carrying up and down the main street to and from the shrine.
Walking around, enjoying the heat from the fires and the torches was really interesting. Watching the men and their sons running up and down the street with massive flaming torches on their barely protected shoulders was exhilarating but also slightly worrying. The men were chanting as they ran, which was perhaps keeping their minds off the heat of the fire dripping from the ends of the torches onto their bare backs.
After a couple of hours, we decided that we had seen enough, and that it would be sensible to get the train back earlier rather than later, to try to avoid some of the crush we’d experienced on the way up. And here comes mistake number 4. The festival was ramping up on activity and we hit the middle of the town just as the parade of torches up to the shrine was forming. There was no way to get past, and people were standing outside their homes with huge supplies of water to douse the flames on the torches when they grew too intense. We ended up perched on a curb right outside the house that was acting as the main fire station, in front of a large framework holding up torches waiting to be carried up to the shrine. At one point, one of the lit torches fell from its perch, to the gasps of the crowd. At another point, someone carrying a torch came rushing towards the fire station, and almost thrust his torch into my face. It was terrifying!
Gradually, the torches were carried up to the shrine, with a parade of drummers bringing up the rear, and the press of people started to reduce as they were allowed to follow the parade. We started to press our way up through the remaining crowds back to the station, where we joined a huge crowd waiting to catch the train back to Kyoto. The journey back was just as crowded as the one up to Kurama, but we were more exhausted so it seemed worse.
All that moaning aside, I’m really glad that we did it. It was an experience of a lifetime. I doubt we would want to repeat it, but I would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Japan at the end of October. Just bear in mind that it is madder and more dangerous than anything you could ever encounter in the West.
Kurama itself, we will definitely go back to visit, at a more leisurely pace, when there is less of a crush of people heading in the same direction. The views from the mountain were spectacular, and it would be good to take a proper look at the temples and shrines at the top.