One of the most ubiquitous elements I have noticed as I walk around the streets of Kyoto is fire. It is expressed in many forms. There are ways and means to avoid, dampen and fight fire if it breaks out. The use of fire in purification rituals and festivals is also a feature. One of the more well known is the spectacular display in August when six large kanji on the hills of Kyoto are set ablaze. From the red fire buckets and extinguishers in the streets, to the ‘Fire’ brand of coffee sold by Kirin, reference to the powerful force of fire is seemingly everywhere in Japan’s ancient capital.
The kanji for fire, from a well-weathered fire extinguisher box on the streets of Kyoto. To me it looks like someone putting their arms up and shouting ‘fire, fire’. We all have our own ways of remembering kanji!
“Japanese culture loves fire“. This statement was on a website listing a selection of the top festivals in Japan. I imagine that it could be more of a love/hate (or at least dislike) relationship given the history of ‘Great Fires’ in Japanese cities. The combustible nature and close proximity of traditional buildings made fire an ever-present threat. In Kyoto for example, the Great Tenmei Fire in 1788 destroyed most of the city, burning uncontrolled between March 6th to 8th. On the ‘good’ side of fire, it provides heat for cooking, boiling water for tea, and warmth – originally in the form of wood and mostly now by electric or gas fire (except for the traditional tea ceremony). So perhaps love and respect is the best way to describe the relationship with fire, an elemental force to be treated with care.
The following collection of images tells some of the story of fire as an element in Japan, with a focus on Kyoto. It is based on my wanderings and ponderings over the last week of May 2016. More pieces of the puzzle to sort through and add to. There is a lot more that can be written. In January 2019 I added some additional experiences related to fire in Kyoto.
One of the first fire related images I saw in Kyoto was this mosaic, near Nijo Station, depicting the kanji that are set ablaze on the mountains of Kyoto in August in the Daimonji festival. They made me smile. Why? Because as a fire ecologist it is special to see this element celebrated! Two years later scaffolding has been placed on the wall to stabilize it after damage caused by a powerful typhoon in September 2018.
These bright red boxes are commonly seen in the streets of Kyoto. They contain fire extinguishers.
The fire extinguishers are sometimes accompanied by a red fire bucket, which are also frequently seen on their own. While the water may only quench a small fire, their bright presence is a constant reminder to be careful with this element. They also add colour to streets where virtually all of the buildings have muted exteriors.
Here is a fire bucket on its own, next to the pot-plants which I also like to photograph. And the tiles behind them. The metal plate next to the bucket gives access to the water mains.
On June 22nd I discovered a local variant of the Kyoto fire bucket in Hanazono, a northern suburb of the city. To my surprise the red buckets there had a lid on them! Possibly to avoid mosquitoes.
I’m presuming that these access plates in the pavements are for fire fighters to connect their hoses to the water mains. I’d love to have that confirmed or otherwise. 🙂 If true, they are part of a multi-faceted approach to fire.
If I was in Kyoto in winter, I may hear the wooden clapping sticks of the night patrols reminding people to be careful of fire. The sticks emit a high, loud arresting sound – these properties also sees them used in Sumo and Kabuki. Thanks to Eoghan Bolster for telling me about the important contribution made by these brigades. As an update, I finally saw and heard a night patrol in October 2016 in Kyoto. I was also able to find a pair of the wooden clappers (hyoshigi) at a local market. The sound they make definitely gets your attention. Image source: The Japan Times has an excellent article on the fire prevention activities of these volunteer groups, including during the 2011 Tohoku disaster.
The threat of fire in the cities of Japan led to some innovative fire prevention measures. Nijo Jinya, an Inn used by feudal lords during the Edo period, illustrates several of them. These include hanging wet mats from hooks along the eaves of the house which as a metal edge around the roofline. In that way there is no wood or thatch exposed to fire. The book ‘Kyoto: A Contemplative City‘ has more information on the fire safety features of this Inn. It was one of the very few places that did not burn down in the Great Tenmei Fire of 1788. Estimates are that 90% of the lowland part of Kyoto was destroyed in the blaze.
The tour of Nijo Jinya, which is near Nijo Castle, made me consider traditional building design and materials more closely in relation to fire. For example, the use of earthen walls with a tile roof in some parts of the property would help dampen a fire. During various periods in Japan different types of roofing material was mandated to try and reduce the risk of losing properties to fire. Modern buildings would also have fire safety built into their design.
The Mitsu Domoe symbol (the three comma shapes in a whorl) is found on the caps of roofing tiles on temples and shrines throughout Japan. One of many different interpretations is that the symbol represents thunder and/or water and is designed to give protection from fire. Roof adornments in the shape of fish, representing the element of water, are considered to play a similar role.
Another fire image that made me smile was this painting of the Fire Festival held on Mt Kurama on October 22nd each year. The image is at Demachiyagi Station where you catch the train to the festival.
On July 31st, Mt Atago plays host to “Sennichi Tsuyasai,” another major festival about fire, both as friend and foe. I would love to participate in it one day. Mt Atago is the tallest mountain in Kyoto at 924 m. The Atago Shrine at the top of the mountain was established over 1300 years ago. Pilgrimages are made to the Shrine to gain protection from fire. In October 2018 I joined a Shugendo pilgrimage to the mountain and received a fire safety amulet to protect our home in Tasmania.
Wooden prayer ‘cards’ were being purified in a consecrated fire in the Founders Hall at Toji Temple on May 21st, 2016. The Goma fire ritual is widely used in esoteric Buddhism and Shugendo, and is the most recognisable ritual defining Shingon Buddhism among Japanese people today (according to Wikipedia).
Last but not least (in the original post), another expression of fire around the streets of Kyoto! Kirin sell several different styles of coffee in a can that is called ‘Fire’. The fire refers to the direct heat used to roast the coffee beans to bring out the full aroma of the coffee. Impressively the coffee can be bought either hot or cold from the vending machines!
In late December 2016 I wrote a post titled ‘Kyushu, Land of Fire’. It provides a different and complementary perspective on this intriguing element.
Then in January 2019 I was delighted to see the parade and display of fire-fighting equipment organized by the Kyoto City Fire Department. The beautiful winters day attracted a large number of families, as did the fire trucks and large water cannon. I was impressed with the number of volunteer groups, the professionalism of the fire crews and the range of equipment that can be used to fight fires in both the narrow laneways and big Temples found in Kyoto.