Later that day, with the morning preparations completed, Nohmen and Kokoro climbed again to the giant fire ship on the hillside. The sun was slowly sliding down the sky. Now, bustling Kyoto was gradually lit up against the darkening sky, so they must hurry to get into their places before the last light sapped away.
The air was still sweltering hot even though the sunlight was subsiding, the earth taking so long to cool down in the summer months. There was a feeling of great excitement among the crowds of people gathered along the route as they vied for a good position which would allow them to see all five of the giant mountain-side symbols. It was said that if they could see just one of them reflected in a cup of rice wine, known as sa-ke which Kyoto is so famous for, they would be spared many diseases, and live a long and happy life. Even the children had their water bottles strapped to their small backpacks or around their necks in anticipation of finding such a reflection in their cups of water or green tea.
Kokoro was deep in contemplation, her eyes closed, her head slightly bowed, silently calling the names of hundreds of ancestors of her spiritual children to say farewell to them. She was always anxious before the fires were lit. She encouraged Nohmen to deepen his prayer, so that they together may protect the proceedings and ward off any evil spirits.
The fires of Daimonji only burn for thirty minutes at eight in the early evening of the 16th of August every year. The ship character will be ignited at exactly fifteen minutes past eight by the person who had carried the prayer sticks and arranged them in their hearth. Oil torches were given out, and soon they saw the Dai spirit character slowly light up on the opposite hillside, and the homeward journey of the spirits began as delighted applause rippled through the shallow valleys around them.
They watched as each of the hearths flared up to make the bold outline of the spirit kanji. Then, five minutes later, the chanting of the massive Myo Ho began as the spirits prepared to board the ship in order to make their final tour of the sacred mountains before they leave. This chant, taken from the penultimate teachings of the Buddha, O Shakka sama, the Lotus Sutra, is the main focus for funeral rites in Japan.
It was quarter-past eight in the evening, the ship group’s torches were lit in readiness, and the signal was given to light the ship character, so that the weary spirits may board it. Nohmen stepped back from the incredible heat of the flash of fire and its almost overpowering rasping scent of pine, while Kokoro stood still, undisturbed by the heat, with her eyes closed, and her lips parted in a beatific smile.
Next, they saw the ‘mirror’ character, Hidari Daimonji, flair up gently and evenly, so that the spirits may see the reflected beauty of the mountains and always remember it. And finally, at twenty-five minutes past eight, the mountain tour was over, and the spirits approached the red gateway to the invisible world.
The focus and concentration of their group was strong. No-one spoke a word, each of them sensing the sheer energy of the event, and having no doubt that they were communicating their gratitude to their beloved ancestors. So, with the greatest precision, a quality most Japanese are proud of, all the mountainside kanji characters were alight together, some of them beginning to smoulder now as the flames died down, having conveyed the spirits to the invisible world successfully.
There was great joy at this moment, as well as deep silence, before the people moved back into their human realm, and prepared to share their joy with neighbours and families. It is glorious in this day and age to see the majority of people living in this high-tec, prestigious society, believing fully in their ancestors. The power of fire to convey prayers and to purify has not diminished here thank fully. The painstaking preparations for next year’s ceremony will begin quite soon, such is the commitment to expressing gratitude, kansha, in Japan.