Each night of the festival large torches are lit outside Nigatsudo hall at Tōdai-ji temple in a specular fire show. It's a brave thing to do — Nigatsudo hall is made completely of wood. More than half of Nara's temples have burned down (and been rebuilt) at some point in history.
Todai-ji itself has burned down many times. For example, the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) has burned down and been rebuilt twice. The Daibutsuden is the largest wooden building in the world.
The event has been held for 1260 years (since 752). It is one of Japan's oldest festivals.
March 1 - 11thEach night from March 1st - 11th (19:00 start) giant torches are lit at Nigatsudo hall. They're held up so that embers rain down. Viewing this fire display is thought to bring luck and safety to the audience. It lasts about 20 minutes.
March 12thOn March 12th (19:45 start) the fire show gets bigger. Large 8 meter (26 foot) torches are lit that burn for 40 minutes. A large crowd attends. The crowd is put into a queue that shuffles past the fire display. This way each person can see the display for 5 minutes or so.
The peak of the festival is after midnight when 11 special priests called the Renhyoshu draw water from the temple well between 1:30 and 2:30 AM. It's said that the well is dry the rest of the year.
The well was a gift from a god. The founder of the temple invited 13,700 gods to a ceremony. Onyu-myojin (one of the gods) was late for the ceremony. He had been out fishing. To make up for being late, he made water spring from the ground in front of the temple once a year.
The water from the well is said to have the power to heal and absolve people of their sins.
The water is used in the Dattan — a mysterious ceremony inside Nigatsudo hall. The ceremony is closed to the public and ends around 3:30 AM. Many spectators remain outside Nigatsudo for the ceremony . The priests use torches inside the hall for the ceremony and the building glows. The sound of horns and bells can be heard.
March 13thThere's a fire display on March 13th (19:00 start). It's much the same as the March 1st - 11th ceremonies.
March 14thThe fire display is shorter but more spectacular on the 14th (19:00 start). It only lasts around 5 minutes.
The end of the ceremony is timed to coincide with the beginning of hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. Often the sakura (cherry blossoms) are just starting to bloom around this time in Nara.