Festivals of Japan: Nozawa Fire Festival
By John Asano
Summer fireworks are spectacular, but they can’t hold a candle to the flaming torches and sake-fuelled mobs of a real Japanese winter fire festival. The Nozawa Fire Festival, also called the “Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri” is a powerful and energetic winter festival in Japan featuring the awesome combination of snow, sake and fire.
Dating back to 1863, the Nozawa Fire Festival is one of Japan’s three most famous fire festivals. The festival is held annually to pray for health, good fortune and an abundant harvest in the coming year.
Nozawa Onsen, which hosts the festival is a traditional Japanese onsen village and ski resort located in the eastern Japan Alps of Nagano Prefecture, about four hours’ drive from Tokyo.
This beautiful little ski town boasts some first-rate skiing, soft powder snow, stunning alpine views and no fewer than 13 free onsen to enjoy.
The Nozawa Fire Festival features fire, snow and sake as well as several parades and ceremonies in the village square. Free sake is provided by the local firemen to ensure that the audience and participants are well primed for the big event and action ahead.
The highlight of the festival is the “fire-setting” battle which ends up with the wooden shrine used in the battle being set on fire. The huge wooden shrine is constructed of wood, rice stalk and other natural flammable materials, and takes roughly one hundred villagers to build. Once complete a priest from Kosuge Shrine performs a ceremony endowing it with a dosojin (Shinto god).
The battle is between two opposing teams. The offensive team is made up of local village men, who carry blazing torches with the aim of burning down the wooden shrine. The defensive team is made up of 25 and 42 year old men of the village, whose job is to protect and guard the shrine from being set alight and being burned to the ground by the rampaging villagers. The 25 year old men protect the base of the shrine by trying to put out the fire of the attackers by striking it with pine branches. The tower at the top of the shrine is protected by the 42 year old men, who throw down more kindling and taunt the attackers below.
Many Japanese traditions are based in superstition and this festival is no different with the 25 and 42 year old men of the village chosen to take on the special roles in the battle. They are selected because in Japan, these are so called “unlucky ages” for men, called yakudoshi in Japanese and need to be purified.
The event climaxes in a massive bonfire as the wooden shrine succumbs to the flames of the attackers and is offered to the gods. Finally, a winter festival in Japan for pyro maniacs.
Location: Nozawa Onsen Village, Nagano Prefecture
When: January 15, 2016
Time: 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm
From Tokyo take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Iiyama, and transfer to a bus to Nozawa.