Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort is one of the larger ski resorts in Japan, but it hasn’t succumbed to modernization like Naeba (another big snow resort destination in Japan). The village of Nozawa Onsen dates back to the 8th century and is famous for its natural onsens aka hot springs, it was also the location for the 1998 Olympic Biathlon. Walking through the village feels like taking a step back in time. I first visited Nozawa Onsen last year and it was during that ski vacation that I heard about the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival. It sounded pretty cool and so I made plans to go the following year.
Reading about the fire festival could not prepare for witnessing the spectacle first hand though. I have never seen anything like it in my life. As many of the Australian spectators kept exclaiming “the whole thing was absolutely mental”!
The premise of the (道祖神祭り) aka fire festival, is that the 25 and 42 year old men from Nozawa Onsen, who according to an old Japanese belief are of an unlucky age, must participate. A few days before the dosojin matsuri the villagers construct a massive 18 meter tall wooden structure that is called a shaden. On the day of the fire festival everyone gets pretty drunk on sake, however the 25 and 42 year old men get especially shlockered and for good reason.
The 42 year old men sit on top of the shaden while the 25 year old men 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 WHILE the 42 year old men sit on top! The 25 year old defender’s task is to put out the fire by striking the torches with pine branches. It is no easy task either as they can barely stand due to their level of inebriation. Consequently during the construction of the shaden ropes are hung from the structure so that 25 year old men can hang by their arms from the ropes!
The festival takes about three hours from start to finish but while everything is being set up villagers walk through the crowd with sake bottles hanging from their necks and one cup. The sake is free and you can drink as much as you want. However, everyone must drink from the same cup! One of the villagers said that it probably isn’t very sanitary but in the name of tradition I went for it.
After a few cups I began to get concerned because I wanted to ski the next day and didn’t want to have a horrific hangover, so I hid from the guys with the sake bottles. I was not very successful. When I politely declined another cup of sake they grabbed me and poured sake into my mouth with a giant ladle. It was all in good fun and honestly about 90% didn’t even make it into my mouth, rather I got a nice sake face wash.
We got to the festival early so we got a prime viewing spot – right in front. However, once the torches were lit and the attacks began the chaos reached a whole other level of insane that I didn’t think was possible in Japan. The massive crowd, filled with numerous drunk people, began surging back and forth as those in the back clamored for a better view and the extremely drunk villagers plunged through the crowd to vomit into the snow before charging back into the pandemonium. In the front rows the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival became one massive mosh pit, minus the bodily violence.
Towards the end the 25 year old men standing guard over the shaden were smoking from all the embers constantly landing on them. I do not envy them the pain the must have suffered for several days after the festival both from the embers and the sake hangover. After about an hour the 42 year old men jumped ship and the 25 year olds were carted off and the shaden was torched.
The next morning I felt surprisingly well and after a delicious breakfast I headed to the resort. I didn’t get many pictures though because it was so cold that my iPhone shut down 🙁
The owners of the ryokan were a sweet couple and were wonderful hosts. They also cooked up some absolutely delicious traditional Japanese breakfasts and dinner. It was a wonderful trip – the skiing was great despite the less than normal snow cover. I was still able to find some epic stashes of untouched powder in the trees. The ryokan was beautiful, comfortable, spacious, and the food was phenomenal. The Nozawa Onsen fire festival surpassed all my expectations. For anyone planning a ski trip to Japan I highly recommend visiting Nozawa Onsen – especially during the fire festival!