Wagashi: Daimonji Okuribi Senbei and Kompeito

Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう

Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
Daimonji: A festival like non other in the entire world! Daimonji, literally means ‘great (big) character’. On a mid-August night massive bonfires are burned on 5 mountainsides surrounding Kyoto in the form of Chinese characters and pictograms to guide the visiting spirits back to the other world. Tawaraya Yoshitomi uses the mountainside motifs on its seasonal senbei.

Senbei is a rice-based cracker common in Japan that is usually grainy in taste and flavored with salt, shoyu and/or sugar. This senbei is intended for the tea ceremony and is quite flavorless and slightly sweet.

The Main Event: Daimonji
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 大文字
This character means ‘great’, or ‘large’.

The Five Mountains Senbei with Kompeito and Kohaku
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう

Tawaraya Yoshitomi Okuribi Senbei

The Package – Wrapped
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう

Unwrapping the Package
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
The characters on the right of the label, ‘送り火’ mean, ‘send-off fire’.

Okuribi Box
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
The 4 Chinese characters and 2 pictograms on 5 mountains of Kyoto.

The Five Mountains (from top to bottom)
大 Daimonji: This character means ‘great’ and is the ironic character of the custom.
妙 法 Myo Ho: These two characters refer to the teachings of Buddhism and are a part of a mantra.
Funagata: Funagata is a pictogram of a boat.
大 Hidari Daimonji: Hidari Daimonji literally means ‘left’ daimonji, it is far smaller and on a hill in the west of the city.
Toriigata: Toriigata is a pictogram of the torii gate that marks the enterence to a Shinto shrine.

The Five Mountains Senbei with Kompeito and Kohaku
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
Kompeito, like kasutera (castella) came to Japan via the Portuguese during the Warring States period. It is a sugar candy and called confeito in Portuguese. The flowers and leaves are called kohaku, literally amber, kohaku is a sweetened gelatin. Neither would be considered particularly tasty by modern standards but these were among the finest sweets of the aristocracy in Japan hundreds of years ago.

Myoho – 妙法
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
Myoho comes from a Buddhist mantra, it refers to the ‘law’ or teachings of Buddhism. It is thought that there were once more characters from this mantra on the surrounding mountains.

Dai – 大
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
This is the bigger of the two 大s, it is one of the largest mountains surrounding the city and a popular hiking destination.

Toriigata – 鳥居形
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
The torii is a Shinto symbol yet Obon and Okuribi are Buddhist. Interestingly the Japanese have no trouble believing both Buddhism and Shinto, even though they are completely unrelated religions. Most Japanese now have a Shinto baptism and a Buddhist funeral.

Funagata – 舟形
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
This is a boat.

Hidari ‘Left’ Daimonji – 左大文字
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
This is a smaller ‘大’ character on a hill in Western Kyoto.

Senbei Broken
Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとう
It’s a good thing that these are visually very attractive because the flavor is not much to write home about. I suppose that this taste is evocative of the wabisabi of the tea ceremony.

About Daimonji and Gozan-no-Okuribi

Daimonji is a festival like none other in Japan. It takes place on the evening of August 16th and marks the end of the Obon festival. The Obon festival is a Buddhist custom in which the spirits of the dead return from the spirit world for several days to be with their still living family members. Offerings of food and prayers are made and family graves are visited and cleaned. Daimonji, or more properly Gozan-no-Okuribi (五山送り火), literally means ‘five mountains send-off fire’ marks the end of Obon and guides the visiting souls of the departed back to the spirit world.

The origins of Kyoto’s Daimonji Okuribi festival are unclear. Some scholars believe that it dates back to the 700’s, around the time Kyoto was founded. The historical record is replete with evidence that there were many more characters and pictograms, but today only 6 remain. While Japan has many fire festivals, this one is completely unique.

The first fire it lit on daimonji at 8pm and the other start at intervals of 5 to 10 minutes. Each fire burns for 30 minutes, then they are extinguished. Before high-rise development in Kyoto, at 8:30 it was possible to see all the characters simultaneously from most any residential rooftop in central Kyoto.

Daimonji Okuribi Photos (大文字 五山送り火)

Okuribi Dai – 大
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 大文字
This ‘大’ is of truly great proportions, 160 by 120 meters!

Okuribi Dai – 大
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 大文字
This is a photo from a few years ago, from a different place. You can really see the smoke at this angle.

Okuribi Ho – 法
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 法山

Okuribi Myo – 妙
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 妙山

This year, at about 8:20 we quickly bicycled over to Myo to shoot some photos up close. This was our first time up on the mountain while the bonfires were burning. We were surprised to see many people chanting mantras at the base of the mountain. Some people were even holding framed photos of deceased relatives.

Okuribi Myo – 妙
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 妙山
Each fire has at least one person watching over it.

Okuribi Myo – 妙
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 妙山
Priests and laypeople chant mantras and hit drums while the fires are burned.

Okuribi Myo – 妙
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 大文字
Notice the firefighter on the left.

Okuribi Myo – 妙
Kyoto Gozan Okuribi Daimonji Yama 五山送り火 妙山
After 30 minutes, everyone pours on a jug of water to extinguish the fire that they are in charge of. This leaves charcoal which in coming days people will collect and place in their homes as talismans to ward off evil, sickness and misfortune.

The Okuribi senbei came from Tawaraya Yoshitomi which we reviewed in our ayugashi confection article and wasanbon sugar article.

Tawaraya Yoshitomi 俵屋吉富
Tawaraya Yoshitomi established in 1755 and is now a very well known throughout Japan. Tawaraya Yoshitomi even has a wonderful confectionary history museum that is free and open to the public. They have a new store and cafe near both Omotesenke and Urasenke School of Tea H.Q.

English:
English website: no
English menu: no

Tawaraya Yoshitomi Honten (Main Store)
Location and Access: Approximately 5 minute walk from Imadegawa Station (Karasuma Subway Line).
Address: 602-0029 Kyoto-shi Kamigyo-ku Muromachi-dori Kamidachiuri-agaru (京都市上京区室町通上立売上ル)
Telephone: 075-432-2211
www.kyogashi.co.jp/b-1.html (Japanese language only)
Map:

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11 Responses to “Wagashi: Daimonji Okuribi Senbei and Kompeito”

  1. kat says:

    this was a great post! we got to see hidari-daimonji & funagata from atop a sento near my mother-in-law’s.

  2. P-T says:

    Wow. That senbei’s beautiful. And the chinese characters written in fire too. Fantastic!

  3. Peko Peko says:

    hi kat, thanks! was that this year? hidari-daimonji and funagata, that sounds like a neighborhood i looked at a house in recently. it was just down the street from a sento, i think.

    Hello P-T, I am glad that you are enjoying the articles! Those are pretty amazing senbei — Gozan-no-Okuribi is completely amazing though. It is one of those things that every time I see it, it always feels new and otherworldly to me.

  4. kat says:

    yes, peko it was this year! sounds like you may have been looking in my MIL’s neighborhood!

  5. Peko Peko says:

    kat, so, is that ‘hood around kinugasa?

  6. diva says:

    wow what an amazing festival! i loved the way the bonfire looks in the night – it feels like something that will blow your mind away if you were there on the mountain itself.

    question – is kompeito the little star sugar candy that are fed to the little soot creatures in Spirited Away? lol. it was the first thing that clicked in my head..so pretty! and love the writing on the crackers. x

  7. kat says:

    my MIL’s is nearby Ritsumeikan elementary.

  8. […] candy during their lunch break. I was passing through Kyoto Foodie’s blog and whilst reading Wagashi: Daimonji Senbei and Kompeito 京都 大文字 送り火 せんべい こんぺいとうI came across pictures of konpeito (or kompeito) and kohaku sweets. This post is wonderfully […]

  9. […] KyotoFoodie: Explanation of Daimonji and Gozan-no-Okuribi and Bonfire Photos (at the bottom of the article) KyotoFoodie: All Daimonji/Gozan-no-Okuribi and Food Articles […]

  10. […] Links and Reference Daimonji Okuribi Senbei and Kompeito (This KyotoFoodie article has a good explanation of Daimonji and some good photos of the other […]

  11. […] The Five Mountains 大 Daimonji This character means ‘great’ and is the ironic character of the custom. 妙 法 Myo Ho These two characters refer to the teachings of Buddhism and are a part of a mantra. Funagata Funagata is a pictogram of a boat. 大 Hidari Daimonji Hidari Daimonji literally means ‘left’ daimonji, it is far smaller and on a hill in the west of the city. Toriigata Toriigata is a pictogram of the torii gate that marks the enterence to a Shinto shrine. (quoted from this KyotoFoodie article) […]

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