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. While many refer to Kyoto as the ‘City of Water’, in my minds eye it is the ‘City of Fire’.
“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. Fires in 1177/1178 and during the Onin War (1467-1477) also destroyed significant areas of Kyoto. It is a city that has been rebuilt many times.
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. There is a lot more that can be written, with more pieces of the puzzle to sort through. In January 2019 and November 2020 I added some additional experiences related to fire in Kyoto.
Two years after this photo was taken scaffolding was placed on the wall to stabilise it after damage caused by a powerful typhoon in September 2018. The following year the mosaic was remodelled – the images of fire now sit closer to the street, set in lots of concrete. It no longer has the same presence.
To my delight 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.
The book ‘Kyoto: A Contemplative City‘ has more information on the fire safety features of this Inn. These include hanging wet mats from hooks along the eaves of the house which has a metal edge around the roofline. In that way there is no wood or thatch exposed to fire. The Inn 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.
To join the tour of Nijo Jinya, which is near Nijo Castle, you need to speak Japanese or be accompanied by a Japanese speaker. Once again, Eoghan Bolster came to my rescue. Seeing the structure up close 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 were mandated to try and reduce the risk of losing properties to fire. Modern buildings also have fire safety built into their design.
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 (this dream was finally fulfilled in 2019; it was an incredible experience). 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.
In late December 2016 I wrote a post titled ‘Kyushu, Land of Fire’. It provides a different and complementary perspective on this intriguing element from another part of Japan.
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. They are some of the many pieces that make up the puzzle of the ‘City of Fire’.