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.


Kasparek said...

I wish I could transport myself there right this second! Have a wonderful time and I can't wait to see pictures!

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