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Omizutori Festival

  • Nara, Kansai, Japan

  • Bucket List Experience

Last updated: 19 April, 2024

The Shuni-e is a Buddhist ceremony held each year at certain Buddhist temples across Japan – involving horn blowing, bell ringing, and burning torches – designed to cleanse the people of sin, cleanse their karma and welcome the spring of the new year. Once the ceremonies have finished, the cherry blossoms have usually started blooming and spring has arrived.

During the Shuni-e, monks will engage in various ascetic practices, including fasting, sleep deprivation, and rigorous physical training, and many of their ceremonies are closed to the public.

The Todai-ji temple in Nara is where the most famous and oldest of all the Shuni-e ceremonies, the 1250-year-old Omizutori, takes place – and it is open to viewing by the people. Omizutori literally means ‘drawing the sacred water’, and it sees monks draw water from a sacred well believed to possess healing properties.

Spectators then gather to witness the Otaimatsu (meaning the ‘fire ceremony’) – a part of the Omizutori ritual. It’s the dramatic climax, where massive torches ranging in length from 6-8m, are carried up to the balcony of the temple and then swung out over the crowd, showering sparks on the people below. It’s thought by locals that these sacred sparks will protect them from evil. The monks also chant, perform ritual circumambulation, and wave swords to ward off evil spirits.

It’s quite the show…

Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 13+
Frequency: annually
When: 10-14th March
Duration: 10-45 minutes

Getting there & doing it

The temple is around 20 minutes’ walk from Nara station, 45 minutes by train or an hour by car from Kyoto.

The number and size of the torches used in Otaimatsu, the fire ceremony, and its duration, differs slightly each day. It takes place at sunset and lasts from anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes.

When to do it

Shuni-e translates as ‘Second-Month Service’ – and it derives from its observance in the second month of the lunisolar calendar – hence it’s held in either February or March (depending on the temple).

The Todai-ji temple in Nara observes Shuni-e annually from March 1st to 14th, and the fire ceremony is always held at sunset on the final few days.