What do you get when you balance a bunch of 42 year olds on top of bamboo, some local Nozawans attempting to set the whole lot on fire and the town’s 25 year olds trying to protect them? Exactly, the Dosojin Fire Festival.
What is the Dosojin Fire Festival?
The basic premise is that the local 25 year olds have to protect the local 42 year olds from all the other locals who are trying to set them on fire. In Nozawa 25 and 42 are considered yakudoshi (unlucky) for men and ‘critical ages’ so some bright spark decided to put them in even more danger by proposing a pyromaniacs dream in the form of the festival every 15 January.
The Disojin Fire Festival is one of the three biggest fire festivals in Japan so seeing as I was around, I went along to see what kind of weird it was.
When I arrived the 42s were balanced on a frame of bamboo, apparently having been there since sunset. And from what I could see they’d been on the sake a lot longer. They were all wearing red and for the few hours that I was there sang and chanted their way through a whole range of songs, none of which I knew. You can see them on the photo above behind the second pillar.
Dosojin Fire Festival pre drinks
On the way down to the festival from my ryokan (traditional homestay) about ten minutes’ walk away, my group and I had managed to find one of the free sake stalls and happily knocked back a few ladlefuls. The friendly Japanese lady was filling up my cup before I’d had the chance to finish, right next to the sign reminding everyone that it was a cultural festival, not a party. Apparently those signs were for the Australians – they’ve got a pretty bad reputation in Nozawa. I was told there used to be a lot more free sake stalls but companies stopped sponsoring because the Australians rinsed them. As I stepped away from the sake I saw a Japanese man struggling on the ice like a little Bambi – obviously it wasn’t just the Australians on the sake party.
We wanted to get to the festival but on the way found a bar made from the snow – obviously we couldn’t resist a mulled wine there either. I’d gone along to Nozawa as part of an organised ski and festival trip with Tokyo Gaijins, a tour company for ‘people who want to party, enjoy the outdoors and like to meet people both local and foreign’. As a solo traveller it seemed like a good opportunity to have someone to go ski with, and to go sake.
You could definitely get to Nozawa easily enough by yourself though, using the public buses and staying in a local ryokan if you fancied the festival next year. Just ask if you need any tips.
Dosojin Fire Festival traditions
Statues to the Disojin gods are everywhere in Nozawa – see above photo. People keep them inside and outside their home as protection. These gods protect the villagers and prevent disasters from entering the village. It’s said that both of them were too ugly to get married but they met, got together and had a baby. Now they’re worshipped as gods of matchmaking and fertility.
The Nozawans will handmake one for the festival, put them in a tub with all the others and then get to choose one to take home, it doesn’t have to be the one they made. Good chance to trade up! It’s thought that the Dosojin Fire Festival has been going since 1839AD and the crowd is getting bigger every year.
My Dosojin Fire Festival experience
From our position at the back of the hoards of thousands we could see the sparks flying as the villagers tried to set fire to the 42s with bamboo fire torches. It was kind of twisted but from the crowd’s groans you could tell they wanted them to be successful in burning those poor drunken guys up there alive.
There’s always a 10pm cut off and so by 9:30 they were getting all the more aggressive with their fire starting attempts. The huge fire source was getting closer and more ferocious thanks to the guys bringing it closer using a pulley system. A guy I spoke to in the bar after said they cover themselves in special stuff so they don’t burn, but there are always accidents. Sparks were flying everywhere and from the way the torches were bobbing along the crowd to the front I was glad to be standing where I was.
Unfortunately the locals didn’t manage to burn them down this year. The 25s were too good at keeping them all off. Apparently the ambulance and fire brigade are on standby and in previous years they’ve had to be called in when its been successful.
The Diojin Fire Festival is a huge deal for Nozawa, but if I was you I wouldn’t let anyone know if you’re 25 or 42!
(All the photos in the collage are from The Guardian – seemed to explain things better than mine!)