Every year on Aug. 16 in the evening, five fires are lit on the five mountains surrounding Kyoto. The fires, which are part of the Obon festival (the Buddhist festival of the dead) and a Japanese tradition, see off the spirits of ancestors as they depart for the other world.
However, the plan was abandoned when the citizens of Kyoto flooded the municipal office with protests against burning the wood on the city’s mountains. Citizens feared that radioactive material from the wood would be released from within the ashes. Despite the fact that the wood was independently tested for cesium and iodine, and came up clean with no sign of radioactive materials, the Daimonji Hozonkai (Preservation Society for the Daimonji Bonfires) bowed to the protestors and cancelled the burning of the message-covered wood.
“The Daimonji Honzonkai should have accepted the wood from Iwate for the fire ritual,” said Naoyuki Ogi, a 14th generation Buddhist priest at Choshoji Temple in Yamaguchi prefecture. “Their rejection helped plant the seeds of discrimination against the people and material in the stricken area because of excessive and wrong information. It will create more prejudice in the future.”
Ogi added that it will also cause more pain to the surviving families, spiritually and socially.
After a barrage of outcries and criticism from cooler heads, the Daimonji Honzonkai’s leader, Kotaro Matsubara, made a special trip to Rikuzentakata to preside over a substitute event with the town’s residents. The woodblocks from Rikuzentakaka, which had been prepared to be burned on Kyoto’s mountains, instead were burned in a bonfire eight days earlier there.
As the wood burned, the bereaved families offered their silent prayers to accompany their messages of love rising on the flames.