I’ve just got back from a lovely weekend snowboarding in Nozawa Onsen, a quaint little town nestling in the mountains west of Tokyo. Once a year, the town comes together for their annual fire festival and some friends and I managed to collar a prime viewing spot balancing precariously on top of a mound of snow. If you’ve ever visited Lewes for Guy Fawkes Night, you’ll have something of an idea of what it was like, except the Dosojin Fire Festival has fewer fireworks and a lot more fighting. My camera’s memory card died, so the few photos that follow have been pinched from my friends Facebook page.
According to Shintoism, the ages 25 and 42 are bad luck if you are a man. For reasons not entirely clear to me, in Nozawa that means that all the men of that age get absolutely plastered on sake and then beat each other up with bundles of flaming sticks. The townsfolk build a marvellous wooden shrine and then the 25 year olds hang off the front edge defending it, whilst the elders attack and try to set it on fire. At first, the attacks are slow and ceremonial and accompanied by Taiko, but gradually things degenerate.
Men of all ages, locals and outsiders, fight for bundles of sticks (which are thrown down from the top of the shrine by elders egging them on) then they set the sticks on fire and charge at the defenders of the shrine. Most of the time the attackers spend less time trying to set the shrine on fire and more beating out their own bundles of sticks on the heads of the defenders, but occasionally one will break through and valiantly hold his torch to the eaves of the beautifully crafted edifice. They don’t stand a hope of setting it alight, however, as it takes rather more than a few pieces of burning rice straw to set alight whole tree trunks… which may explain why most of them expend their energy trying to set the defenders alight instead.
Eventually, after all the sake has been drunk (some of it by the crowd, who are fed sake by men walking around with bamboo cups tied round their necks) and the sticks have all been burned, the main fire is moved slowly closer to the shrine until, finally, the whole thing goes up. It seems a tremendous shame to burn something so beautiful, but by that time everyone is freezing and could do with a good bonfire. Anyway, they’ll build another one next year.
As well as the fire festival there was also, of course, snowboarding. It’s a great season this year, and I bumbled and stumbled my way down glorious powder that cushioned me gently every time a careened into a drift or fell on my face (both things I did a lot). I have learned the importance of good fitting boots and have found previously an otherwise good time has been spoiled by agonising rentals. This time I went equipped and Christened my new boots on a brilliant 2km bunny run. They made a huge difference and I can now execute balletic, if slow, S-turns and, once, a 720 of such grace you wouldn’t have believed it was me had you seen me the last time I strapped on a plank. It was even perhaps 60% deliberate!
After each days sliding, I soothed my aching joints in one of the many free onsens for which the town is, understandably, named. Each time I go, I am less perturbed by the experience, and this time the blissful tingling in my extremities as they warmed up after a day on the slopes left me feeling as though I was floating on a cloud.
This was a proper public onsen with no separate changing area, only cold taps for your pre-onsen wash and a front door that opened directly onto the path so that anyone outside could see you getting un/dressed as they came in. It was the sort of place that, had it been my first onsen experience, would have had me running for the hills. But now, after several less frightening experiences, I was able to take it in my stride. There really is something about bathing naked with other people that forces you to let your guard down and really relax. You just can’t stay prudish in an onsen, it’s impossible. The experience is rapidly healing my bruised and cowardly British psyche and I rather think we would be improved as a nation if we adopted the practice.
All in all, a very happy two days spent reaffirming the value of fire, ice and good company.