Every 15th of January, the villagers of Nozawa Onsen gather for the highlight of the Dosojin Matsuri.
Matsuri means festival, and Japan is filled with many matsuri throughout the year.
The “Dosojin” are Shinto guardian deities, and come in various forms, from tall stones to short stout statues and in Nozawa Onsen, they are usually carved as a couple – a man and a woman. They are considered benevolent, and protect travellers and are often seen at the boundaries of territories.
At Nozawa Onsen, the annual festival celebrates the Dosojin of the area. The Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri is considered one of the three most important fire festivals in Japan. It is an important cultural festival which is an invocation for a good health, bountiful harvest and (in recent years) a successful ski season.
Months before, over 100 villagers are involved in building the wooden structure that is called the shaden. It is the shaden that is the at the core of this ritual. After it is built, it is endowed with the Dosojin through a ceremony that is invoked by a priest from the Kosuge shrine. So it is essentially, the wooden structure at the heart of this ceremony is a religious shrine to the Dosojin guardians of Nozawa Onsen.
Men aged 25 and 42 participate as their ages roughly translate in Japanese to the same words as “death” and has an aura of bad luck. To counter this age of bad luck, they participate with gusto at the Dosojin Matsuri. They act as either attackers or defenders of a wooden structure. The attackers try to burn the wooden structure (called a “shaden”), the defenders, well, you guessed it, they defend. And they do so with passion and violence. Some have left the Dosojin Matsuri with third-degree burns to their faces, if that gives you any idea of the level of investment these participants give to their roles.
There are 2 other structures to either side of the shaden, which to me, looked very similar to Balinese ritual totems that I’d seen on my travels. They are beautifully decorated and have the names of all the children born in that year written on the paper hanging from these structures. I am not sure what they’re called – if anyone knows, please let me know! 🙂
You can find out more about the festival on Nozawa Onsen’s website here.
And please take note of the “Some suggested protocols for the Nozawa Fire Festival” section on that page.
A few tips to help you enjoy the night:
- Use heat-packs and wear your toughest winter clothes to stay warm throughout the event. You can find heat-packs sold at the local Nozawa-Onsen grocery stores. I put 2 foot-sized heat-packs on each foot (on top of foot and just under my arch). I had 5 body heat-packs on my back and 1 on my stomach. It makes a huge difference!
- Hot ashes and embers drop from the sky, so don’t wear your most expensive gear. Perhaps buy a cheap raincoat to go over your really expensive stuff.
- Don’t wear a backpack. You won’t need much at the festival and it’s hard to move. Also, it’s more of a consideration for others. If you DO bring a backpack, wear it in front of you so you can keep your bag secure and manage the space yourself, rather than forcing other people behind you to deal with the bulk. This is something the Japanese appreciate on trains and public transport, as well – wear your backpack in front of you, it really does help when you’re in a crowd.
- Don’t bring valuables. I brought my mobile phone and had it in a zip-up pocket on the inside of my jacket. It’s not the local villagers you should be wary of. Sadly, it’s the tourists.
- Eat well before going to the festival. Have a good meal before going or bring some high-calorie snacks if you know the cold will get to you. Take a plastic bag with you to take home the rubbish.
- It takes about 4 hours for the ceremony to reach its climax. Starting at 7:30pm till about 11pm…so be aware that the later you go, the better the action. Just note you’ll be further up the back.
- The location is out of the village centre. It may take up to 10 minutes from your lodging to get there. The fire and wooden structure is in the middle of a small valley, which means if you’re at the back of the crowd, you’ll be at the top of the valley. This means you may get to see more as the crowd before you will be standing at an angle sloping down.
- The bonfire is just as interesting – if you can’t get a good view of the structure being attacked/ defended, get a spot near the bonfire. It’s fascinating watching the different groups go up and light their torches, and watch the bonfire keepers stoke the fire. A group of school kids lit torches at one stage, showing how the village is including the younger generation and passing down the ritual. And it is warmer near the bonfire. 🙂 Just a warning: it’s also much smokier around the bonfire and there are lots more hot embers.
- The ritual is violent. There are 2 groups of men. One group protects the wooden structure which is to be burnt. The other group attacks the structure with torches. Both groups of men are encouraged by copious amounts of alcohol, and there is a lot of passion and energy on both sides. So if you have kids, you may not want them to see this part too closely. Suggest you watch some videos of the night on YouTube or on Nozawa Onsen’s site to get a better idea of what to expect so you can best judge for yourself and your kids.
- Go to the bathroom before you go to the festival. There are no public toilets available and it is hard to navigate through the crowds to get back to the village area.
As you’ll see from the photos below, the location isn’t dotted with shops or stalls and rest rooms. The location is in a bare valley and it’s just the pure energy of the ritual.
One last note, and one which I think this really applies wherever you go.
It’s about respect.
The villagers are taking part in something they consider important and spiritual. There’s lots of alcohol (sake), for them to drink as it’s their big annual celebration. So although it’s a bit of a local piss up and they’re generous to share the booze with us, it’s still an important ritual to them, so please be respectful and don’t treat it like you’re at a music festival.
In recent years, many tourists, sadly Western and Australian tourists, have treated it more like a fireworks display rather than an important local ritual.
As an outsider to Nozawa Onsen, or an outsider to any ceremony, I felt that my first Dosojin Matsuri was spectacular, but it was annoying to have a tourist near me go on and on loudly to his friends about his flirting and sexual prowess with a girl at the local bar (Stay Bar…where everybody knows your name and, apparently, your STD). Cool story, bro. Can you stfu now so I can just enjoy the festival?
Actually, this group moved away from me after a few minutes. But my husband did get stuck next to another group who were swearing loudly and he did say “Guys, this is a spiritual ceremony, so please would you pull your head in?”. The answer he got was “But we’ve been drinking since 4pm!” which is kinda the reaction you expect from self-absorbed drunks. But at least he tried. He moved away and hopefully those lads had a think about what they were doing.
So, based on that most recent experience and others I’ve been told of, here’s a list which I hope us visitors keep in mind for next year’s Dosojin Matsuri:
- Please don’t drink too much and don’t talk so loudly about your sexual skillz so that the crowd around you for 10 metres can hear. Also, your penis will seem so much smaller when you’re showing such desperation for crowd appreciation and public knowledge of your prowess. So shhhh…inside voice.
- Please don’t yell out “Aussie Aussie Aussie oi oi oi” in moments of silence (this happened in 2015). Yes. Again. For repetition. This actually did happen.
- Please don’t bring your alcohol to the ceremony and then chuck the empties on the ground. Take a plastic bag and take your rubbish with you. Except for a few Asahi cans, most people were really great about this, let’s keep this going!
- Please don’t try to join in by pushing the locals out of the way so you can light your own torches and burn the main wooden structure in some douche baggy attempt to be funny (yes, this happened a few years back).
- Please don’t stand in front of shorter people. If you’re a tall person, you’ll have a clear line of vision in almost ANY spot, and it’s common courtesy not to block the views of those who are shorter than you. The Japanese were very considerate about this, and I had one Japanese man stand to my side or behind me as the bonfire moved to make sure he didn’t block my view. He kept saying “Dozo, dozo” which translates roughly to “Please, please” and gesturing in front of me. The Japanese were really sweet about this, and I’m sure we can return the favour.
- Please don’t relieve yourself between the buildings because you’re too drunk to find a proper bathroom (this happened this year as we walked away from the ceremony grounds). Try to hold it in – it’s only a short walk back to the centre of the village!
- Please don’t take anything from the ceremony grounds.
- Finally, if you see someone doing something akin to desecrating the ritual, or just being an obnoxious douche, please do say something, if you are able and are not in any danger of aggression. Please politely ask them to stop, or find a local policeman who will kindly escort them away. It’s important that these people know their behaviour is not acceptable. The ceremony does deserve to be protected and respected.
This is Nozawa Onsen’s story. This is their big annual festival that they’ve been preparing for, for months.
We wouldn’t want anyone being obnoxiously rude at our local ceremony.
In fact, at any festival, ceremony or celebration of any kind around the world, surely you want to give the same level of respect you would ask for?
Protecting the local village ritual is vital for its success and unfortunately, the current situation is that many returning tourists (and locals) who love this ritual are staying away because of this behaviour.
Despite that, and perhaps for that very reason, we need more people to come to the festival who will respect it and who will appreciate it for the cultural experience that it is!
DO join in the fun and partake of the free sake, and enjoy the spectacular sight of the ritual. It is amazing to watch. Nozawa Onsen’s wonderful ceremony deserves to be celebrated and I hope these photos show the dedication and energy of the night.
I’ve stayed at Nozawa Onsen 5 times, and I love the welcoming nature of the villagers and the balance of it being a killer snow resort destination as well as a fascinating cultural destination. Nozawa’s residents deserve the success and the respect that we would expect in our own countries.
The fire festival is visually spectacular, with the different groups of men chanting and singing together to bolster spirits in the freezing conditions. Seeing them welcome us, give out free alcohol, sharing the tradition with their kids, and sharing this ceremony freely with foreigners without touristy trinket stalls speaks to the authenticity of this ritual.
It is an astounding feat of human energy and embodiment of belief. It is electrifying.
Please support Nozawa Onsen’s Dosojin Matsuri by attending or staying at Nozawa Onsen. And I hope to see you at next year’s Dosojin Matsuri, with a healthy dose of optimism, wonder and respect.
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