One of the most memorable chakai that I attended when I lived in Kyoto was the Hotarubi no chakai at Shimogamo shrine. The tea gathering that is held in June amidst the glow of live fireflies at Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine (also known as Kamomiya Shrine). “Hotaru” means “firefly”; “bi” means “fire “or “glow”. One of its aims is the preservation of Tadasu no Mori, “The Forest of Justice,” which surrounds Shimogamo Shrine. About 600 fireflies are released over a stream called Mitarashigawa as invitees to the tea ceremony enjoy their tea.
Shimogamo is one of the oldest shrines in Japan, and is located just to the north of the confluence of the Kamo and Takase Rivers in north-central Kyoto. The history of this shrine dates back to prehistoric periods. The earliest reference to the shrine is a repair of the fence in 2 BC, suggesting that the shrine had existed even before that time. Since then, the shrine has played a central role in the religious lives of the people of Kyoto, and has served as a guardian of Japan and Kyoto. The importance of the shrine was especially significant in the Heian period, since prayers for the success of the capital were held there. This shrine has often been described in literature, including an appearance in the Tale of Genji. Today, Shimgamo Shrine has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The shrine contains 53 buildings that are all recognized as Important Cultural Properties.
Hotarubi no chakai is usually held in the beginning of June. The connection between the shrine and tea began in the Kansho period (1441-1446) and tea ceremonies with fireflies were common until the Meiji period (1868 - 1912). In later days, however, those events ceased as the shrine was nationalized, and the fireflies became extinct in the surrounding forest because of pollution in the 1940s. But people recently started to clean up the area and release firefly larvae. Consequently, the number of fireflies began to increase in the forest, and so the tea ceremony was revived in 1991, after about 100 years of absence.
The fireflies are released over the Mitarashigawa. A cage holding fireflies was placed on a small pier at around 8pm (the big cage and some other smaller ones were on display in other places on the shrine grounds until the awaited time). We attended the festivities starting at about 5 pm. Then we went to the chakai and after we had tea and sweets, it was dark and they released the fireflies. As they flew out of the boxes, it looked almost like fireworks, yet they still glowed afterwards in the bushes and grasses around the river.