Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nozawa Onsen Pt. 1

Street brawl!

I mean, Fire Festival! (Dosojin Hi-Matsuri)

Nozawa onsen is a lovely little village in the Japan Alps known for its many public hot springs baths and European-style ski chalets. It is where we spent New Year's weekend after our trip to New York. It is where the boys learned how to snowboard, and I learned that I should stick to skiing. It is also the site of this curious annual ritual.

Apparently every year, on Jan. 15, villagers try to light a bunch of 42-year-olds on fire.

The targets sit on top of a huge shrine (assembled over three days leading up to the event) while the town's 25-year-olds stand guard and try to beat back the attack, whacking at the flaming torches to snuff them out. (25 and 42 are two of the "unlucky" years for men, according to Shinto belief.)

Happy New Year!

This impressive diorama in the town's Memorial Hall explained a lot. So did the video the museum cafe has showing on its big screen TV on continuous loop. But I still have questions. Such as, do the defenders wear flame-retardant gloves? what happens if the attackers are successful and the giant pile of wood actually catches fire? Is the fire brigade standing by?

Learned a few more things at

During the festival, much free sake is consumed.

Visitors are asked to carry a badge to identify themselves and their accommodation, so that those who overindulge can be given a ride home in a fire truck, after a spell in the tent of shame.
The evening starts with some ceremonial events, namely lighting a fire with a flint to then light the fire sticks.

The protectors yell “hi motte koi” (bring on the fire), and that's when things really get going.
The first fire attacks come from the youngest villagers, who are carried up by their parents.
The 42 year olds sit on top of the shrine, drink sake and egg on the attack.


If you want to check it out, you can take a shinkansen to Nagano (about an hour from Omiya) then the Iiyama line local train to TogariNozawa-Onsen (another hour). The village is a 10-15 min taxi ride from the station. There's also a bus that can take you into town. I will not be on it. As much as my boys want to go see this spectacle, I can't imagine that's a good idea.

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