About eighty percent of central Kyoto Prefecture, the area known as Woodland Kyoto, is covered in lush forestland with rich, natural gifts that have forged the lifestyle and culture of the region. Forests play an important role in the environment and as home to all kinds of creatures, but they’re also an integral part of fire culture. Civilization began for the human race because our primeval ancestors discovered the existence of fire and learnt to kindle it themselves with firewood from the forest. In Japan, where the indigenous religion believes deities to be present in elements of nature such as mountains, forests, and rivers, burning flames are revered as gods. This article introduces the fire culture that has been rooted in the Woodland Kyoto area since ancient times through the lenses of faith, living, and play.
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Fire faith in Kyoto
First, let’s unpick the relationship between fire and faith in the Woodland Kyoto area. Japan is a country of wooden architecture. Its forests have been an abundant source of wood for houses, bridges and towns since time immemorial. Historical records show that when Kyoto was being built in the late 9th century, lumber was brought from the Woodland Kyoto area to use in the construction of the new capital. But wood is flammable, and with so many timber buildings densely packed together, the old city of Kyoto was ravaged by huge fires time and again. The people came to view fire simultaneously as a sacred presence that lit up the darkness and extinguished impurities and a fearsome force of destruction. This is thought to be why the people of Kyoto, more so than other communities, made fire part of their religion and attempted to seek divine protection from its wrath.
One bastion of Kyoto’s fire-related beliefs is Atago Shrine in Kameoka City west of Kyoto City. The Kameoka area has a long history, and records suggest that Atago Shrine was founded in the year 507. It enshrines the fire deity Homusubi-no-kami and his mother who are believed to grant protection against fire. The shrine is nestled at the foot of a small mountain and surrounded by thick, green forest. There’s a giant thousand-year-old cedar tree in the grounds, and the main hall, designated a National Important Cultural Property, dates from the Kamakura era (1192-1333), so you get a strong sense of just how long this shrine has played a part in local religious practices.
There’s also another Atago Shrine in the area situated at the top of Mt. Atago about five kilometers away as the crow flies on the border of Kyoto and Kameoka Cities. Mt. Atago is well known as a sacred mountain that protects over Kyoto. The mountaintop shrine is the more famous of the pair as a destination to pray for protection from fire, but the deity enshrined there was transferred to the mountaintop location from the Kameoka shrine. The Kameoka Atago Shrine is commonly referred to as Moto-Atago (meaning “the original place of the Atago faith”) for this reason. Both shrines issue fire protection amulets which are often found in Kyoto on the walls of home and restaurant kitchens or artisans’ workshops where fire is used. The Kameoka Atago Shrine holds an annual Fire Extinguishing Festival to pray for the prevention of fire every April 24th.
Address: 1-1 Minami-yamanokuchi, Chitosekokubu, Kameoka City
Another of the fiery traditions of the Woodland Kyoto area is a spectacular fire festival. Called Agematsu or Matsuage, it’s held each year in late August in Miyama, a picturesque rural village in Nantan City that’s famous for its thatched-roof houses. The event takes place in four of the village’s districts and involves small flaming torches being thrown at a giant 20-meter-tall torch called a torogi to pray for a bumper harvest and implore the deities of Atago Shrine to prevent fire disaster. It’s a stunning, other-worldly spectacle with the fire lighting up the night sky as if to signal the end of summer.
Pottery: Objects of daily life born from the flame
Until gas and electricity became commonplace, wood and charcoal were the main energy source for the fire used to forge iron, swords and farming tools and to make pottery, glass and many more of the objects of daily life. These days technology makes it easy to light a fire and control the temperature, but Kyoto being a place that holds strong to tradition, there are many people who chose to make things the old-fashioned way with a naked flame. Woodland Kyoto’s plentiful lumber and a tranquil environment make it the ideal location for artisans to immerse themselves in their work.
One such person is Emu Nakai, a pottery artisan born and raised at in the foothills of Hangokusan, a mountain on the western outskirts of Kameoka. Nakai works with a wood-fueled anagama (literally “cave kiln”) in a cypress forest near her childhood home. She built the kiln in 2010, clearing the space in the forest and stacking the bricks herself.
According to Nakai, anagama have been used for more than 1300 years and are the oldest type of kiln in Japan. She says that enclosed kilns were a significant technical innovation over the open burning that had been practiced until then, and the principles of firing and structure of the kiln have remained largely unchanged since.
Nakai fires up the kiln about three or four times a year to bake various items, typically tableware, vases, and pieces of artwork. It takes three days to heat it fully with family members taking turns around the clock to stoke the fire. The first day is spent burning out moisture from the base. On the second day, the temperature is gradually increased, and it reaches about 1200 to 1300 degrees Celsius inside the kiln on the third day.
Nakai fell in love with and trained in yakishime, a traditional technique of making unglazed pottery in a wood kiln that exploits the natural qualities of the clay. Because of the constant fluctuation in the state and flow of the fire in this type of kiln, there’s an unpredictability that gives the finished pieces a range of decorative expressions. For instance, small stones in the clay might burst and create a pattern on the object, or an object might be blackened by a shower of ash. Yakishime pieces also have a shiny, colorful “natural glaze” that is the result of ash melting at high temperature and fusing with the clay.
“There are people who say that electric or gas kilns are more convenient, but I’ve disliked working with machines ever since I was a kid. It’s far more convenient to control the flame directly with my own two hands and it suits my nature,” says Nakai. “The moment I extract the pieces from the kiln is the happiest of all. I’m excited when I get a color I was aiming for and it’s fun when a chemical reaction in the kiln has created something new too!”
Some of Nakai’s work. In contrast to conventional yakishime pieces which are typically rustic and heavy, Nakai’s are finer and more dainty-looking. They feel surprisingly light to hold and her expert potting and shaving skills are apparent in every detail. The techniques Nakai uses to create this finer pottery were actually developed by Kyoto ceramic artists. They aren’t popular in yakishime because the finished product tends to be too fragile, but Nakai continues to forge her own unique approach, hoping to make this style of pottery she loves more readily enjoyable for others.
“The beauty of yakishime items is that the more you use them, the more the gloss and color develop, and the more the feel improves. Because the clay is porous, you get a great layer of foam on beer and water tastes smoother. In a yakishime flower vase, the water will last longer too,” says Nakai. The deeper one goes, the more there is to these beautiful pieces.
One place where a primitive flame has a role in our modern daily lives is the barbeque. Barbeques in Japan are “Korean style” where you grill thinly sliced foods at high temperature on a charcoal fire. This type of barbeque is easy even for first timers and fun for kids. It’s also a great way to try some unique Japanese foods and condiments, and experience a food culture that’s a little different from your home country’s.
Japan is presently in the grips of an unprecedented camping boom, and with its rich natural environment, Woodland Kyoto is no exception. Why not spend a night at one of the new-style camping spots that are popping up, or enjoy a BBQ, glamping, or a tent sauna at the increasing number of facilities in the area?
For a barbeque without the fussy preparation, we recommend heading to Springs Hiyoshi in Nantan City. Situated directly below the Hiyoshi Dam, this roadside station-cum-leisure facility has a sprawling grass area with spectacular riverside and mountain views, natural hot springs, and two campsites. One of the campsites is for traditional “do-it-yourself”-style camping with your own gear, and the other, called DOD Camp Park Kyoto, is a collaboration with Osaka-based outdoor brand DOD with equipment provided. It’s a fun way to spend a night camping and experience popular Japanese camp gear.
The BBQ area can be used whether you’re camping at Springs Hiyoshi or just there for the day. Options include food and use of a barbeque grill, an awning, and chairs for 3,300 yen per adult and 1,650 yen per child (elementary school age and younger) with a minimum of two participants. There’s also a premium course that includes dessert and delicacies such as Japanese beef, juicy locally raised Hiyoshi pork and Tamba black chicken. This one costs 4,800 for adults and 2,400 for children. Most of the vegetables and mushrooms provided are freshly picked locally. For something a bit different, try dipping the onigiri rice balls in the BBQ sauce and grilling them—your tastebuds will thank you! If you don’t have any experience starting a charcoal fire, don’t worry, the staff will guide you through the process.
Address: 8 Naka-miyanomukai, Hiyoshi-cho, Nantan City
Closed on Wednesday (or the following day if Wednesday is a national holiday)
BBQ area open from 11 am to 3 pm, with an additional evening session from 4 pm to 8 pm on Saturday, Sunday and national holidays. Reservations are required. https://www.springs-hiyoshi.co.jp/bbq.html（Japanese language only）