Do you have a pyromaniac streak? Then the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is an insane event you really must see.
Nozawa Onsen’s Fire Festival is one of Japan’s top three fire festivals, and is held on January 15 every year.
It takes approximately 100 villagers to build the shrine for the fire festival. The trees are felled in October and brought down from the mountain through the village on 13 January prior to being constructed in to the huge wooden shrine or Shaden. Once the Shaden is built priests from the Kosuge Shrine perform a ceremony endowing it with a God or dosojin petitioning for a plentiful harvest, good health, and good fortune. There are also an average of five toro (dedicatory lantern poles) erected every year by families in the village to celebrate the birth of the first sons. The toro are offered to the Gods in a prayer for health and good fortune.
Each year the 42 and 25 year old men of the village (these ages being considered unlucky for men in Japan) take on a special roll. With liberal consumption of free sake by participants and spectators alike the night kicks off.
As night falls the 42 year old men climb to the top of the tower where they stand guard clapping and chanting, the 25 year old men forming a guard around the base singing and swaying. The goal of the rest of the villagers of all ages is to storm the tower with flaming torches and burn it to the ground. As the battle rages, and it does truly look like a fight from the dark ages – though conducted with a good-natured level of insanity – there are sparks and flames and beating drums. The men at the base of the Shaden are attacked with flaming handmade torches as the villagers pursue their goal of setting the Shaden alight with gusto. It is only once the tower is alight that the men at the top make their retreat down a ladder to safety and the flames engulf the tower in a face-searing blaze of heat.
The atmosphere is heady as you find yourself succumbing to the influence of the sake and the rhythmic beating of the drums. We made some new Japanese friends that night sharing sake and food and it was easy to get swept up in the revelry and feeling of community. It really is a spectacle that has to be experienced to be believed.
Contact one of the Hakuba Information Centres for details on tours that run from Hakuba to Nozawa Onsen for the event.