Buddhist rituals of fire & water – Omizutori festival in Nara, Japan

Omizutori is the commonly used name for Shunie, a series of events held every year from 1 to 14 March at Todaiji Temple. This collection of Buddhist repentance rituals has been held annually for over 1250 years, making it one of the oldest recurring Buddhist events in Japan.

Omizutori is performed at Nigatsudo Hall, a complex of Todaiji, located not far from the main hall of the temple on the hillside. Nigatsudo means “second month hall”, referring to the second month of the lunar calendar, when the Omizutori is traditionally held. The second month of the lunar calendar corresponds to the 3rd calendar month.


Among the many different events held in Omizutori, Otaimatsu is the most famous and spectacular. Immediately after sunset every night from March 1 to 14, huge torches, 6 to 8 meters long, were brought onto the balcony of Nigatsudo and held the crowd. Dazzling fires down on the balcony are said to have given viewers a safe year.


The size of the torch and Otaimatsu’s time vary from day to day. On most days, ten medium-sized torches were brought in and taken over the balcony again, and the entire event lasted about 20 minutes, while the audience stood in the courtyard below the wooden church.

On days 12 and 14, however, this procedure is slightly different, as shown in the table above. On the 14th, the last day of Omizutori, the event lasted for only about five minutes, but all ten torches were brought onto the balcony at the same time, making a particularly spectacular sight.

On day 12, the torch got bigger and bigger, and the ceremony lasted longer. This is also the most crowded day, so most viewers can’t sit still in front of Nigatsudo, but are kept constantly moving through the lobby in the queue, limiting the actual viewing time to about 5 to 10 minutes.

On all days of the event, the small courtyard below Nigatsudo becomes crowded before sunset, and should arrive early to get a view of the balcony. Crowd sizes vary day by day, with heavier crowds expected on weekends and crowds lighter when the weather is bad. On the 12th, it became the most crowded, but probably won’t need to arrive early, because the audience is rotated across the yard, giving people a quick overview of the action.

Other events

At night from March 12 to March 13 from about 1:30 am to 2:30 am, the priests came down many times from Nigatsudo with a torch to collect water from a well at the foot of the temple tower. Well water is thought to flow only once a year, and is resilient. It is this event that is actually the name Omizutori (“water drawing”). However, the entire two-week event became popular under its name.

After the water drawing event, the mysterious string ceremony is performed inside the Nigatsudo hall. During the ceremony, horns were blown, bells rang and priests revolved around torches burning inside wooden buildings. This event ends around 3:30 am.

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