Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Dôsojin Fire Festival

OK, any of you who know us have likely heard us speak of some of the crazy (in our opinion) festivals they hold in Japan. I had the opportunity last month to see one their "finest" up-close. The winter season fire festivals are a big deal and one of the top 3 in all Japan happens to be held each January 15th in the small village where I teach once a week at the elementary school. The teachers and staff assured me it was something I shouldn't miss, so with John's blessing, I stayed in Nozawa that day after classes to join them in the festivities.

Let me add that it doesn't begin until around 8pm... I normally finish up about 4pm and then make the 1 1/2 hour drive home ... and they said it would end between 11 and midnite! And I would still have to drive home!! But hey, I was there and it seemed like I should grasp the opportunity! Oh yes! Nozawa is a top ski/snow board destination, with 13 free! onsens (hot spring baths), multiple slopes and LOTS of snow!! And on this particular day it had been snowing since long before I arrived there in the morning and never let up! I went out at 4 to move my car into the teachers garage before the festival and literally had to unbury it from the 2+ feet of snow on and around it! This on top of the abundance there from previous days.

So after the teachers finished up their stuff I went to eat dinner with two of the ladies at a small cafe. The teacher's car had been in the garage all day so was snow-free. We made the short drive to the cafe, enjoyed a tasty meal and nice conversation (relative to the fact that their English and my Japanese are on similar levels - not too great!) and about an hour later set to head back to the garage found her car first needed to be freed from the half foot of snow that had fallen in that short span!! We made our way back to the school to park and they suggested a dip in the onsen to warm up before heading out in to the freezing night...to my great surprise the onsen was in the school basement!! Cool! or actually HOT!!

Then, it was off to the festivities! The location was less than a 10 minute walk from the school so that was convenient. It was amazing to see SO MANY people in this small village! All bundled up and ready to brave the freezing temps and steady snowfall to watch the fire fight! I'd planned to take our good camera in hopes of some good pics but decided against it with the heavy snowfall - good move! Having no extra baggage was the right choice in the sardine packed crowd - not to mention that the snow wouldn't have been good for it's lifespan. I did, however, have the ever-present cell phone ;-) Got a few pics but not so great. Then I shot some video - not great either but the best I could manage in the crowd...the weather.. you get the idea.

So there's 1:59 if you care to take a peek. All that stuff falling is lots & lots & more snow! You can see it piling up on the heads and shoulders of the onlookers.

I couldn't really explain it all to you and make much sense so below is the town info on what the festival is. I can tell you it's a huge shrine they build, the poles decorated for the years' new first sons are elaborate - all to be burned up... There's gallons of sake consumed which explains in part why the folks fighting each other with fire aren't fazed by their singed flesh and soot covered bodies - at least not til the next day.

It was definitely an experience!

The Dôsojin Fire Festival (courtesy of Nozawa Onsen Village):
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 fourty-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.

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