Long before you were snuggling down to the Game Of Thrones’ Song of Ice and Fire, Nozawa Onsen was celebrating these elemental opposites in style. The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is held anually on the 15th January, and the little village of Nozawa is sold out of accommodation 12 months in advance!! If you got in early, here is the low down on this amazing event.
The origins of the festival are deeply rooted in the Shinto religion and celebrate Dosojin. Dosojin’s are deities that are believed to protect travellers and villages from epidemics and evil spirits.
In October (Japanese Autumn) men from the village aged 25 and 42 years old (ages which are considered unlucky) will go harvest timber from the countryside in preparation to build an 18m high shrine. Then on January 13th, they start to build the shrine so that in two days it’s time to ready to burn it down. And; that’s when the fun starts. The festival celebrates the birth of a family’s first child, dispel evil spirits and also to pray for a happy marriage. That pretty much brings you up to date.
But, if it’s your first time at the festival, you’re going to be a little confused... our advice would be to just roll with it.
As a foreigner, you’re welcome to observe the festival but bear in mind that you're witnessing a cultural event that has been practised for over 150 years - so respect is a must - the good time that ensues is inevitable.
Expect to be offered a taste of Sake for just showing up, a few locals will be well and truly having fun and the Sake is part of it.
When you light a 3 storey wooden structure on fire, there’s bound to be a lot of heat and ash. That new jacket you got especially for this trip might want to stay at home for this part of the journey ;).
The ‘fire festival’ is a cultural event, steeped in tradition. The context may get a bit a lost on you, but like all travel experiences we recommend you sit tight and take it in - at the very least, you’ll have a story to tell.
As a Gaijin (foreigner), the festival is a little hard to interpret. But here’s what you’ll be seeing on the night of the 15th of January when the structure gets burnt down - it’s known as the ‘fire setting battle’ and it is every bit as exciting as the name implies. Basically, there are two teams of men, the 25 and 42-year-olds who must defend the structure, the other team is everyone else. The defenders must try and repel the offensive team who are trying to light it up. This can take up to four hours, so you’ll want to settle in and be ready for the ‘battle’. The battle itself is in good fun but can get intense - relax and appreciate the fact that you’re a spectator.
The Fire Festival has gathered international renown over the years and along with school holidays and peak snow season, January in Nozawa Onsen is one very busy month. If you got in early and scored a bed mid Jan then we'd love to hear your Fire Festival stories, both past and future.
If you aren't already booked in, then we highly recommend enquiring 12 months in advance for future years... Availability is so tight now for January, we suggest staying in the neighbouring ski resorts of Madarao, Myoko or Shiga Kogen if you are restricted to travelling in school holidays (Dec/Jan). Otherwise try Feb/Mar/Apr to explore the many other highlights of this traditional little onsen village.
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