Japan is a country of lists, “100 Famous Japanese Mountains”, “Top Three Omatsuri (Festivals)”, “Top Five Gardens” and the list goes on… So when a colleague of my husband’s recommend that we visit Nozawa Onsen for one of the “Top Three Fire Festivals”, I knew it would be worth it. Maybe I’m a little pyro, but I love festivals that involve fire (in Ethiopia my favourite festival is Meskel). But honestly, nothing prepared me for Dosojin Matsuri. I’m not sure what could.
Dosojin Matsuri is a fire festival that takes place in Nozawa Onsen, a town famous for it’s natural hot spring baths (onsen) and it’s awesome powder for skiing. It’s located about an hour north of Nagano and hosted some of the events when the Olympics were held in Nagano. The festival is held on January 15th every year, although preparations for it start all the way back in October when the special trees for the shrine are chosen.
The event centers around men who are 25 and 42 years old, these ages being considered yakudoshi (unlucky). The 42-year-old men will climb on top of a huge wooden shrine in the middle of the grounds and the 25-year-olds will guard the shrine from all of the other men in the village who will try to burn it down. The men are all hammered on very strong sake, the local japanese rice wine. During the whole event, there are men who go around giving more sake to the men and to people in the crowd. The event is meant to dispel evil spirits and bad luck from the community during the coming year.
The festival is also related to fertility and family’s who have had a baby boy during the last year will build a “first lantern” decorations. The calligraphy is drawn by local school children and the family members of the baby boy. These lanterns will be brought down to the festival grounds and the babies will be celebrated and prayed for. The Dosojin statues are made to pray that the first born son will grow up healthy and have a happy marriage. They will then be burned into ritual fire.
Parade Through The Village
We had been told by the host at our hotel that the fire festival would start around 8pm. This is wrong. The festival starts at 7pm when the lanterns get carried down to the festival grounds. Meanwhile, men, already drunk on copious amounts of sake and wielding giant bales of straw on fire will parade through the village swinging the fire into the cheering crowds. Add more sake, slippery icy surfaces going downhill and a lot of falling down. I had started off with my husband but I followed this guy down the hill and slipped through the crowds to try and get pictures closer to him.
Arriving at the grounds earlier might have afforded better views closer to the shrine. But leaving my husband behind, I pushed and shoved (and I’ll be honest crawled) my way through drunk people’s feet down towards the shrine and close to a second bonfire pile they had made. I ended up kneeling down at the aisle, pushing my way (but not too pushy) so I could see what was happening. The Japanese elderly man on whose feet I was kneeling thought I was hilarious and very dedicated so he helped me stay safe and get good views through the next 3-4 hours that the festival took place. I also made sure that any Japanese people who wanted to be in front of me to take photos were always given the opportunity. This is their festival and a ritual for them and ensuring that I was respectful is always top of my list. I was rewarded for this behavior by several of the Japanese security guards and older people who basically formed a sort of block around me to keep other pushy (and drunk and loud) foreigners from taking my spot.
The kick-off came in the form of a beautiful fireworks display and some traditional Japanese drumming (and of course through it all, people ensuring that everyone had enough sake to drink).
Burn It All Down (Children’s Edition)
During the next few hours, a huge secondary bonfire was built right in front of me (it’s a miracle I didn’t catch on fire). This fire was being used to bring the fire to the main shrine that the men were trying to burn down while the 25-year-olds valiantly defended the 42-year-olds who were singing and taunting from the top. Even children got in on the fun with their fathers bringing them for an opportunity to get some fire to burn it all down.
Burn it all Down (Extra Sake Infused Edition)
After about an hour or two, it got really serious (and dangerous) as the men got more and more drunk and more and more determined to burn the shrine down. Throughout this whole time, security personnel were around with ropes trying to keep the crowds under control and mostly safe. Sometimes it was hard as drunk men carrying fiery straw bales would collapse at our feet or shake embers towards the crowd. Thankfully my Japanese friend kept a close watch on me and would brush off the embers from my jacket (I returned the favour).
At the very end, there was a final push but the men of the village weren’t able to burn the shrine down. There was a little bit of a victory ceremony by the 42-year olds and then the whole thing was set on fire deliberately!
Let it Burn
Finally, the children’s lanterns were also brought closer to the fire and everything went down in a glorious blaze. I slipped away from my spot and stole a last glance before hurrying back to our lovely ryokan.
Ethics while photographing Dosojin Donburi
While Dosojin Donburi is obviously a fun sake-filled event, visitors should remember that this is an important cultural and religious festival for the people of Nozawa Onsen. It is not a rave or a party and some foreigners that were very drunk and yelling at people for more sake did not go down well with the Japanese people I was surrounded by. Yes, they are getting drunk and out of control, that doesn’t mean you have to. Also, remembering that it is an important time for many of the older people especially, give any Japanese person the ability to get to the front and the space to pray if they want to. Remember, you’re a visitor. Be respectful of the local people and culture.
Have fun! And stay safe amid all of the crowds, the huge fire and the slippery ice.