Dosojin Fire Festival
A fixture of Nozawa Onsen cultural life since 1863 and held annually on January 15th, Nozawa Onsen’s Dosojin Fire Festival is one of the three biggest of such spectacles in Japan.
During the celebrations, prayers are offered up to the deity Dosojin.
Dosojin are gods that protect villages and its inhabitants from harm and are also the gods of fertility, happy marriages, and healthy children. The tradition in Nozawa Onsen is for villagers to anonymously exchange carved wooden figurines of Dosojin while the fire festival takes place. Besides connecting members of the community in this way, the Dosojin Fire Festival provides another local service: bringing fortune to those men of Nozawa Onsen who are currently at the “unlucky” ages of 25 and 42.
These two “unlucky” age groups play an essential role as organizers for this event, selecting the five sacred beech trees from which the festival’s shaden—a large wooden shrine—is built on January 13th, two days before the main event. After its construction, a priest from a nearby shrine holds a special ceremony to endow it with the spirit of Dosojin.
On the evening of January15th the festival starts in earnest, as male villagers light torches from a bonfire and stage an assault on the shaden. The “unlucky” 42-year-olds sit on top of the shrine defending its roof while singing and chanting, and the 25-year-olds protect the wooden structure at its base, using pine branches to put out the torchbearers’ fires. Once the excitement of battle is over—and all participants have withdrawn to a safe distance—the shaden is ceremonially burned, together with large decorated lanterns on poles that are carefully made by families to bring good health and fortune to the children.
You can see a replica of one of these large, beautifully decorated poles in the Oborozukiyo no Yakata Museum.
Yuzawa Shrine’s Lantern Festival
The sky is lit up with glowing orange bulbs when Yuzawa Jinja, the shrine located next to Kenmeiji temple, holds its annual lantern festival on September 8th and 9th. For locals, who believe the event’s origins date to the mid- or late-Edo period (1603–1868), this is one of the most eagerly awaited religious occasions of the year.
It can, however, be a little baffling for the uninitiated. The huge two-day event is conducted by 42-year-old men, whose age (along with 25) is considered unlucky. While a committee—which consists only of men residing in Nozawa Onsen aged between 40 and 42—collectively called sanyako—takes charge of all the preparations, the spiritual dances, such as the Sarutahiko (Shinto god) Dance, the Lion Dance and the Dance of the thirty-six kasen (great poets), are conducted by an association of Yuzawa Shrine, which handles the preservation of bugaku, imperial court music and dance.
The colourful festivities start on the first day at around 7.30 pm with a fireworks display, followed by the lantern procession, which features the lamps attached on large poles and carried through the streets from the public bath house Juodo no Yu to Yuzawa Shrine via Oyu-dori Street. Don’t miss the performance of Sarutohiko no Mikoto, a Shinto deity who carries out a purifying ritual known as shimekiri. The deity rhythmically swings a large lit torch before cutting a ceremonial rope with a katana sword. Since this unique spectacle usually lasts until midnight, stay sated with some tasty local snacks, which are sold at stalls along the street.