A fire festival and a lot of sake in Nozawa Onsen: The Dosojin Fire Festival

A fire festival and a lot of sake in Nozawa Onsen: The Dosojin Fire Festival

This is one of the major fire festivals held in Japan and it takes place in the very stunning Nozawa Onsen. This village is located in the Nagano prefecture, and is a major powder skiing destination as well as it being famed for its hot mineral spring onsens, which abound in the very traditional Japanese village.

The Dosojin Fire festival is culturally significant as it aids in warding off evil spirits from harming the village.  It is also a festival to ensure a good harvest, good health and good fortune in the coming year, and now includes ensuring a good ski season. It is also a rite of passage where 42 year olds and 25 year olds, the unlucky ages, are integral to the ceremony, in showing their strength and determination.

A large shrine is built in the village centre where the fire festival takes place. This involves selecting the appropriate trees in the preceding October, then dragging these very large trees through the village on January 13th each year. This takes a long time as the villagers stop along the way and offer sacred sake to the shopkeepers, villagers and onlookers. It takes 100 villagers to build and erect the shrine. The shrine is 7 metres high and about 8 square metres wide, as it has to be able to seat the 42 year olds from the village, up on the top level. 

The highlight is on January 15th where a fire battle occurs. The sacred fire is bought down through the village, to the great delight of everyone lining the streets as often the hair of the villagers accidentally gets set on fire when the faggots are dropped. This is a party in itself. It is then taken to the site accompanied by a lot of sacred sake. This is where the 42 year olds sitting up on the shrine sing loudly and try to protect the shrine by any means available, again aided by a lot of sake; probably to ward off the cold as it generally snows very heavily. The 25 year olds attempt to set fire to the shrine, again by whatever means they can and again with a huge amount of sacred sake. It is a full on battle that gets quite vicious. Both age groups are defending their honour – one must protect, the other must destroy. They take it very seriously and fire and wood flies everywhere, so beware.

The battle can take up to four hours from the beginning to the end, but it seems that when the very large barrels of sake that sit astride the shrine are empty, then the shrine burns to the ground. The villagers take embers home with them and put a clay pot on it and then place 3 beans on the pot. When the beans turn red they jump and the villagers use this to determine their future, a fortune telling ritual.

People come from near and far to attend this fire festival battle and to help the villagers in their rituals by consuming sake with their hosts.


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