Several of Nara’s festivals have been celebrated for well over a thousand years. Many of these are dignified court dances, though the fire rituals are more lively affairs. In spring and autumn the New Public Hall in Nara-kōen stages a series of nō dramas, while the biggest cultural event of the year is undoubtedly the autumn exhibition of Shōsō-in treasures at the National Museum.
January 15 Yama-yaki
(Grass-burning festival). On a winter evening at 6pm, priests from Kōfuku-ji set fire to the grass on Wakakusa-yama – supervised by a few hundred firemen. The festival commemorates the settlement of a boundary dispute between Nara’s warrior monks.
February 3 Mantoro Lantern Festival
To mark setsubun, the beginning of spring, three thousand stone and bronze lanterns are lit at Kasuga Taisha (from 6pm).
March 1–14 O-Taimatsu and O-Mizutori
(Torch lighting and water drawing). A 1200-year-old ceremony that commemorates a priest’s dream about Kannon drawing water from a holy well. The climax is on the night of March 13 when, at around 6.30pm, priests on the second-floor veranda light huge torches and scatter sparks over the assembled crowds to protect them from evil spirits. At 2am the priests collect water from the well, after which they whirl more lit flares round in a frenzied dance.
May 11–12 Takigi Nō
Outdoor performances of nō dramas by firelight at Kōfuku-ji.
August 14–15 Chugen Mantoro
To celebrate Obon, the festival of souls, Kasuga Taisha’s lanterns are spectacularly lit.
September Uneme Matsuri
On the night of the harvest moon, this festival takes place at the Sarusawa-ike Pond as a dedication to Uneme, a court lady who drowned herself here after losing the favour of the emperor. At around 7pm two dragon-bowed boats bearing costumed participants and gagaku musicians commemorate the lady’s death in multicoloured splendour. The festival lasts until 9.30pm.
Early to mid-October Shika-no-Tsunokiri
(Antler cutting). This is the season when the deer in Nara-kōen are wrestled to the ground and have their antlers sawn off by Shinto priests. It all takes place in the Roku-en deer pen, near Kasuga Taisha. Check locally for exact dates.
December 15–18 On-matsuri
At around midday a grand costume parade sets off from the prefectural offices to Kasuga Wakamiya-jinja, stopping on the way for various ceremonies. It ends with outdoor performances of nō and courtly dances.