Thursday, January 13, 2011

Nozawa Onsen and the Fire Festival

Every January 15th in the small Japanese village of Nozawa Onsen, all polite rules are thrown out for the night. This is a night where sake is flowing and people are beaten with flaming wands. The festival is called Dosojin and the official story is this:

This festival is one of the three most famous fire festivals in Japan. It is held on January 15th every year to pray for a plentiful harvest, health, and good fortune in the coming year. The festival dates back to 1863 and though the location has changed, the festivities remain the same. During this festival, the twenty-five and forty-two year old men from the village play a very important role. An old belief in Japan dictates that, for men, these years are unlucky ages. The twenty-five and the forty-two year old men in their unlucky ages construct the shaden (shrine) from beech wood that reaches a height of 18 meters. Every year it takes 100 villagers to build the shrine. The trees are cut down in October and brought down from the mountain, through the village, on January 13th. After the shaden has been constructed, the priest from Kosuge shrine performs a ceremony to endow it with a God. Along with the shaden, there are an average of five tôrô (dedicatory lantern poles) erected every year. These poles are made by a family in the village to celebrate the birth of the first son. The tôrô are offered to the Gods in a prayer for health and good fortune. The festivities begin with the lighting of the fire by the twenty-five and forty-two year old men. A small group of men carry a torch, which is lit by striking two stones together, from the Kôno residence to the festival grounds. The torch is used to start a bonfire from which the handmade torches, used to attack the shrine, are lit. The festival centers around the shaden, where the forty-two year olds sit on top and the twenty-five year olds stand guard at the base. Those who are 41 and 43 years old stand around the perimeter to protect the spectators. Torch bearing villagers of all ages attempt to break through the guards and light the shaden on fire. A dangerous and lively battle ensues. The defenders try to put out the fire by striking it with pine branches. The attack lasts for about one hour, after which the 42 year olds call an end to the ceremony and the shaden together with the tôrô are set on fire in an offering to the Gods. The entire festival can take up to four hours from the beginning to the end, but the main attraction is the battle between the guards and the torch bearing villagers.

When I started my first teaching job in Japan, my colleagues told wild stories about this crazy festival. Promises of snow, sake, and fire entice lots of Japanese and foreigners to the quaint ski village of Nozawa Onsen. This year will be my third time to witness the annual event. Our first visit here was with our good friends, the Kaspareks and Diane Hobler. It was the highlight of our first adventure here in Nippon. Since we've been back, we've been able to bring Lily, and now Hana, along for the adventure.

The festivities begin tomorrow morning when the villagers put their finishing touches on the shaden and burn their darumas (I'll save that for another post) from the year before. Back in the town center, in this wonderful old wooden shed, you'll see people of all ages sitting and painting their wooden Dosojin deities. These figurines, if you dare call them that, are Shinto-Buddhist gods of roads and borders, believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the village from harm. These guys are the VIDs (Very Important Deities) of Nozawa Onsen. When they are depicted in human form, as a man and a woman, their guardianship extends to marriage and fertility and childbirth. They also protect travelers -- a natural extension of the roads and borders thing. After these figures are painted, they must be taken to the shaden where, as Diane and I were told when we painted our own deities that first year, they receive their souls.

With all the Fire Festival has to offer, you have to turn your pilgrimage to this amazing village into a multi-day trip so you have time to see more of what the area has to offer. Nozawa is a paradise for skiing and only 30-40 minutes drive from the snow monkeys that were made famous during the Olympic Games in Nagano. I must suggest that you stay with our friends at Takagiya Minshuku. They don't speak English and we don't speak Japanese, but we seem to manage just fine!

I could go on and on about this town, but I've probably gone on long enough. Have a wonderful night and, if possible, squeeze this adventure into your itinerary as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Year... New You...

So, I didn't so so well on my resolution last year. I clearly didn't keep up with blogging. It's time to start fresh again with 2011, and I've got lofty goals for myself once again. This includes the normal cliche of losing weight and taking better care of myself, of course. Then there are those goals that have to do with family and work. Those I'll have to write about in future posts. Let's focus on goal #1: lose 10% of my body weight.

Several years ago -2003 to be exact- when I first returned from my stint as an au pair in Switzerland, my mom and I joined Weight Watchers to set us on a healthier path toward smaller statures. As part of the program, the first goal was to reach 10% weight loss and then set a goal to reach a weight within the healthy range for your height. I was motivated and, luckily, 10% weight loss put me right at the top of the healthy range for my 5'4.5" frame.

Fast forward to 2011. I'm now married and have two beautiful little daughters. The youngest was just born on November 23rd so I'm hanging on to a bit of baby weight. Three days ago I reached the 6-weeks-past-birth date and have started back to the gym. I also signed up for a fitness challenge through the Morale Wellness Recreation (MWR) program on the base. I'm still 10 pounds lighter than I was back in 2003, but heavier than I want to be. The goal now is to lose 15 pounds before heading home for the summer. Do-able? I think so! Especially with Andy's support, a toddler to run around after, and a baby to breastfeed.

One great service MWR provides is a health assessment. You schedule an hour appointment with the fitness office where they measure your fat percentage, assess your fitness level, help you set realistic goals, and help you make a plan to achieve those goals. Then, and possibly most importantly, they meet with you a month after setting these goals to see how you're doing and refocus you if needed. I'm planning for great things to come of this! My appointment is on the 11th. I'll let you know how it goes.

just before Hana was born

Sunday, January 24, 2010


For Christmas I asked for a video camera. Well, to be more specific, I asked for a Flip video camera. I was introduced to them last year at Bertschi. I figured if the kids could use it, I would hopefully be able to keep up and not lose any of the pieces along the way. Now, with the addition of this Flip, I had to learn how to use imovie on my Mac. Luckily most things on the Mac are fairly dummy proof and this is what I have ended up with...


Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Little Entertainment

My friend Judy sent this to me yesterday. I don't live anywhere near the UK or Ireland so this was totally new to me and had both Lily and me rocking away!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Putting the Past Behind Us and Looking Forward

2009 was definitely a year filled with highs and lows. Highs including Lily's first birthday, an amazing trip to New England, some pretty wonderful weddings of some pretty phenomenal people, and beginning a new adventure in Japan. The lows came at the passing of two amazing grandmothers and a very scary stay in the hospital for Lily. It was a roller coaster and we're curious to see what 2010 has to offer.

Lily is starting to turn from a baby into a little girl. She's got more words and we keep talking about weaning her from the pacifier. If only that pacifier wasn't such a life saver in situations where she is a little off her normal game - late nights out with friends or airplane rides, for example. We have close friends here with daughters a year older than Lily and it's fun to look forward to what Lily will be like when she's Avi's or Isabella's age. She definitely has some personality!

Andy is currently down in Sasebo diving under the ships of war and helping to ready them for smooth transport across the waters. He's having such a different experience from the last time he worked with this crew and that's largely because of the new guys on the team and those who have moved on. And quite possibly in part because he has a different relationship with his boss. Andy would likely consider him a friend now as opposed to "the big guy who yells a lot on the barge." We're all looking forward to him being home again and getting to spend his days with Lily. Now that she made the move from 2 naps down to one, maybe they can get out a bit more for some sight seeing.

And then there's me. I'm plugging away at my new job as a kindergarten teacher for DoDDS and having a blast as I do so. Every new school is a challenge, but with a 1.25 years of DoDDS experience and 2 years of Bertschi Pre-K experience, I definitely feel like I've got the tools needed for the job. Now to add to that tool box! I think a Master's program might just be in my future. And then there's also the inevitable question of when will Lily get a little brother or sister. Andy's been gunning for another "squawker" for a while now and I'm both trying to plan to the school year, trying to allow Lily a little time as the only child, and wanting a gap big enough so Lily can be a "little helper" when the new baby comes along. We see friends with kids close in age and they just look TIRED! Happy, certainly, but definitely tired. 2 1/5 years might be enough of a gap...

Enough of my rambling. Until later!

Who needs R&R...

when you can have S&S! At least that's what Lily seemed to think while we were down in Sasebo visiting Andy for Christmas. During the day, while Andy was off diving with his old team and cleaning up the Navy ships, Lily and I would wander. I had a pretty ambitious list of places to go and things to see while we were there. Some of the list was accomplished and some was deemed overrated. Overrated was the 2-4 hour trips to neighboring areas like Nagasaki. Completely do-able were the short bus rides out to the zoo and aquarium or the morning sightseeing trips with the Outdoor Rec. Some days we would head out the gate with great intentions only to spend a couple of hours at the park. Hence R&R turning into S&S - clearly referring to...

SLIDING and...


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dancing Queen?

We've been up to a lot of moving and shaking since our last post. So much movement pushed me off of the blogging wagon. Not to worry! This is the start of life where we are right now. The video is from the Halloween party at the Purdy Gym here in Yokosuka. Lily has always loved music and is now singing in the car whenever we go places. And, since she's getting more and more confident on her feet, she's gotten into bouncing to the beat. Updates on the past few months will come soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009