If you had the Japanese pegged as quiet, polite and conservative, you would be right most of the time… but The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival proves that when the Japanese let loose, they can out-wild anyone! Combine slippery snow with buckets of sake and an excuse to beat each other sense-less with fire and you have a recipe for a wild festival indeed.
The fire festival is one of the three most famous fire festivals in Japan, held every January 15th 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, and these men must 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 forty-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 fouty-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.