Kurama no hi Matsuri (as it's properly know) is held on October 22nd each year, in a small town, Kurama, an hour by train north of Kyoto. Thousands of people head there late afternoon until late at night to watch the locals of Kurama (children included) parade large torches (taimatsu, ie pine torches, 250 in total) around the streets before placing them at the temple Yuki-jinja. The festival reproduces the scene of receiving the deity in Kurama. I visited it in 2012 while I was staying in Kyoto, here are my thoughts...
Is It Worth Seeing?
Yes definitely. If you've been to something like Ottery Saint Mary in Devon, UK then Kurama will be a less chaotic experience although lasts far longer. So don't expect anything too crazy, but go along, get involved and mix with the locals.
We went fairly late, getting the train at 17:00 and arriving in Kurama well after 18:00. Upon getting off the train you are constantly shuffled along behind tape and well clear of the torches by the police (the Japanese love being well organised). You shouldn't need to rush though as further along (just past the temple and up the hill) you can break free of the tape and wander around more freely.
We got much closer to some of the larger torches that weigh 80+kg and require 3-4 guys to carry them. We sat outside the front of someone's house for a while and joked with the locals. After a while we decided to march down with one of the torches. You can often get almost to the temple before the police kick you back behind the tape. It's great fun, and we did it a few times. You can get right up close to the torches, feeling the heat coming off them. After 22:00 the crowds begin to go home, so you start to get a better experience.
- Getting there - at Demachiyanagi station (end of the Keihan line) the queue for the trains to Kurama can be 2 hours long (by 5pm) going out of the station and down along the river. You can skip all of this by taking a 10 minute walk to Mototanaka, the next station. We caught the first train that came along, although you have to push your way in! Not even many of the Kyotans know this trick :)
- Getting back - trains run until around just after midnight. Beware there will be queues just to get out. We had to queue for about an hour and caught a 23:30 train back to Demachiyanagi.
- Staying late - we were tempted to stay the night so we could watch the entirety of the festival but we were quite exhausted by 22:00 as it had been a long day. Also it's a fair bit colder in Kurama at night. If you fancy roughing it you'll need something to cover up with overnight.
- Train tickets - when you arrive you can buy your return ticket just outside the station. It's easy enough buying one when queueing to get home but it's one less thing to think about.
- Camera - if you have a decent low-light lens it's worth taking. I took my 35mm f1.8 prime lens and it worked very well at an ISO of around 800 and shutter speed of 30-60ms.
- Food & drink - grab a bento box or some snacks on the way. A few beers may be too :) as you'll be away for several hours.