Notes: Fire sacrifices to Dosojin

A future topic for investigation -the origins of Dosojin – the connection between fire sacrifices and Dosojin

To mark the New Year, the forty-two-year old men of Nozawa village sit in a nest of pine boughs on a sixty-foot shrine made of beech logs lashed together with rice straw rope.

Fueled by sake, the villagers attack, trying to set the shrine on fire, while the twenty-five-year old men, now considered adults and guardians of their elders, ward off the attacks. It’s all in fun – the forty-two-year olds climb down a ladder before the fiery finale, a huge bonfire, symbolizing their escape from the dangers of a critical year in their lives (shini means both “forty-two” and “to die’).

Nozawa shadenFiery finale

Left: afternoon blessing of the Nozawa hi-matsuri shaden, or shrine. Right: mountain shrine.

A hot spring ski resort village in a mountainous region known as Snow Country, Nozawa is about an hour by car from Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. This hi-matsuri, or fire festival, established in 1863 based on ancient Shinto tradition, is held annually on January 15.

Route map

Click on the image for a Google Map

When we arrived in the early afternoon, a priest was blessing the shrine, and the twenty-five and forty-two year olds were gathered around to honor Dosojin, to whom the festival is dedicated. Dosojin is the village protector, a dual male-female kami of fertility, marriage, family, harvest, and health portrayed as a man and a woman standing together.

Shrine blessingDosojin statues

Left: Blessing the shadden. Right: Dosojin statues, made from logs.

At the blessing, the participants took their first sips of sake, a drink sacred to the gods. They continued drinking throughout the night, while villagers with 1.8 liter sake bottles wandered through the crowd, pouring cups and urging the spectators to down them.

Taking sake

At seven p.m. the sacred fire was lit. Lantern poles were erected for first-born sons in the preceding year (two this year). At around eight, aerial fireworks went off, and taiko drumming began.

Sacred fireFireworksFather and sonNozawa toro

Then, armed with flaming bundles of reeds, the villagers moved down a lane through the crowd and thrust their torches at the guards to drive them off and ignite the shrine.

AttackersFighting the guards

Holding onto short ropes attached to the shrine, the guards knocked the torches down with their free arms or with pine branches and beat out the flames. Full of bluster and sake, the forty-two years olds egged on the attackers from above by tossing down unlit bundles of reeds to fuel more attacks. The flames from the reed bundles were too weak to burn their nest of pine boughs, which symbolize strength and longevity.

42 year olds

It’s the twenty-five year olds who are tested: their faces were blackened with soot and burning reed-ash landed and glowed in their hair; after an hour of defending the shrine, they began to look exhausted.

25 year olds

Meanwhile a couple of hundred spectators pushed forward against a barrier of rope and crowd-control officers to get a closer look at the action, then moved back whenever the attackers waved them off with their torches. With all the pushing, a couple of young Japanese men started fighting with each other and had be restrained. A drunken tourist got upset at being shoved about and started swearing at the Japanese in English.

Last year, according to the Snow Japan website, “there were some problems with tourists trying to take part in the fire attacks and getting into fights with locals.” This year, a flyer passed out at the inns emphasized that only villagers were allowed to participate; outsiders should remain spectators.

Around ten, the attacks subsided, and the forty-two year olds declared victory, chanting and clapping, their leader waving a pine bough. Then they climbed down, and the villagers pushed a pile of burning logs under the shrine, using poles as levers. The shrine and lantern poles were consumed in the bonfire as offerings to Dosojin.

Starting the fireShrine and poles on fireOnlookersConsumed by fire

Snow Country, the novel by Yasunari Kawabata that made the region internationally famous, concludes with a tragic fire blazing into the starry night, taking the life a beautiful young girl, a sacrifice to the gods of winter, an emblem of fragile beauty embodying the Buddhist belief that an individual’s life is a transient illusion doomed to extinction.

By contrast, Nozawa’s annual hi-matsuri is a comedy, a Shinto celebration of life maintained through family, community, and generations. Only the beech trees are sacrificed. As the bonfire died down, the merry townspeople, full of sake and feeling blessed, headed home through the dark snowy streets, while we visitors went back to our inns to warm up in sulphuric hot spring baths. A soaking is said to be good for fatigue and rheumatism


From Dennis Kawaharada: Roads to Oku

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