Nozawa Fire Festival 野沢温泉 道祖神祭り

Nozawa Fire Festival
Nozawa Fire Festival

A furious struggle for supremacy at a fiery Shinto festival

One of the wildest traditional Shinto celebrations in the Hokuriku Shinetsu region, Nozawa Onsen's famed fire festival takes place every winter on January 15. The festival lights up the night with fiery clashes between the male villagers. Playing particularly important roles are those aged 25 and 42, unlucky ages in Japan.

Large numbers of villagers carry torches and attempt to burn down a temporary shrine called a shaden, while the 25 year-olds defend the structure and the 42 year-olds sing and chant. Despite its destructive nature and the mad struggle, this festival is meant to celebrate the birth of a family's first child, dispel evil spirits, and ensure happy marriages.

Don't Miss

  • Grilled dough pockets with savory fillings called oyaki
  • Shots of free sake from bamboo shooters that locals carry around their necks

How to Get There

The Nagano Snow Shuttle offers a direct connection between Tokyo's airports, Shinjuku Station, and Nozawa (about six hours). It also runs between Nozawa and the Nagano resorts of Hakuba and Shiga Kogen.

Alternatively, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Iiyama (1 hour 40 minutes) and then the Nozawa Onsen Liner bus (25 minutes). Direct buses are available through the winter from Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya.

The festival takes place in a grassy glade, about a five-minute walk from Oyu Onsen on the main street.

Bring on the fire

In Japan, the ages of 25 and 42 are considered astrologically unlucky for men. The Nozawa Fire Festival combines a rite of passage to protect them with ancient New Year rituals.

In Japanese, the festival is known as Dosojin Matsuri, in honor of the tutelary Dosojin deities it honors. The Dosojin are believed to fend off epidemics and other misfortunes. They're commonly found carved into stones on roadsides and borders throughout central Japan; in Nozawa, they appear as two wooden poles painted as a human couple.

The earliest record of the festival in its current form dates to the mid-1800s, but the roots go much further back.

The day before the festivities, around a hundred villagers build a makeshift shrine on a clearing near the village center. As the festival begins, the 42-year-olds sit atop the shrine, singing to the Dosojin erected across the glade; the 25-year-olds stand at the bottom, holding ropes attached to the shrine. They must keep hold of these at all costs. As the time to start draws near, they chant “Bring on the fire! Bring on the fire!”

Their wish is soon answered. Columns of villagers bearing bundled reed torches attack the temporary shrine, doing their best to set it alight. The men holding the ropes have to protect the shrine, whatever comes. One after another the villagers charge, and a battle of sparks and flame ensues.

The chanting grows more boisterous, and after 90 minutes or so, the men on top of the shrine throw dozens of reed torches (the very torches they need to burn the shrine) down to the villagers. Soon the battle reaches a fever pitch as the stream of fire toward the shrine becomes a burning river trying to break through the young men below, now covered in soot and ash.

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