In a world where hot coffee lawsuits have led to ubiquitous disclaimers, warning signs and laws against most acts of stupidity, It is a rare and entertaining treat when you see ordinary people getting to do something that is actually dangerous for once. As I overheard someone say in the crowd, “if the fire festival weren’t thousands of years old, they would never let it happen.”
I’ve heard the Dosojin Fire Festival explained a few different ways. The idea behind it is to offer a symbolic prayer for a good harvest, and also for good health and successful marriages for the first born sons that families in the village of Nozawa Onsen have welcomed this year. The participants in the fest are the 25 and 42 year olds of the village, because both are unlucky ages for men. Where the stories differ, is on the role each age group played in the fest, so I will relay the version that I like best. Apparently the 42 year olds sit on top of the shrine, about one story in the air, drinking and singing songs, while the 25 year olds defend the bad of the shrine from attacks from the rest of the villagers. The best story I heard was that the 25 year olds were holding the older men captive and that the villagers were truing to free them. This jives with the fact that the older men frequently tossed torches into the crowd for the villagers to light and fight with, but not with their chants of “give up the fight” (in English for the benefit of the many Western tourists, I suppose). However, I also read that the 42 year olds were “defending” the top of the shrine from the villagers. (Were they expecting an air raid? A catapult? Rappelling ninjas? All of those seem unlikely)
After about an hour of fireworks, singing, and carrying on, a large bonfire was set, uncomfortably close to where i was standing, actually, and villagers began lighting bunches of reeds to create torches, and making their way to the shrine. For the main event, villagers take these LIGHTED TORCHES and beat the 25 year olds viciously about the face and hands in an effort to get them away from the base of the shrine so they can try to light it on fire. The brave youg’uns just stood there and took it, over and over again and used their weapon-less arms and hands to push away, grab, or even put out the torches and keep holding on for dear life to the ropes at the base of the shrine. This started rather tamely at first, and I was astonished to see young children and adults with babies strapped to their backs being given handfuls of reeds to light at the bonfire and attempt to ignite the shrine with. Naturally, the 25 year olds didn’t put up much of a fight against 9 year olds and dads wearing baby bjorns, but still the shrine remained intact.
As the fight intensified, more of the base got torn away, and it became clear that the shrine was actually really hard to set on fire. Each time someone managed to knock away enough quarter-centarians to hold their torch against the wood of the shrine for a good long while, the flame wouldn’t actually catch, or it would be easily put out when the defenders recovered their post. So, the villagers gradually pushed the whole bonfire closer and closer to the shrine. Eventually it was close enough that it appeared a decision was made to just stop fighting and burn the thing. All the young defenders disappeared and the older townsmen climbed down from their perch, but one or two could still be seen up there even as the base began to burn.
It made for a massive, gorgeous bonfire. I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I’d imagine that is the only other bonfire that surpasses this one in terms of size. After appreciating the flames for a bit, the festival participants next took the giant umbrella-like posts decorated for first born sons and tipped them into the fire.
After 3 hours in the cold, there was a apoint where what my eyes wanted to do (watch) and what my feet wanted to do (be warm and have circulation again) diverged widely and I decided not to stay to see the structure collapse. I have read that once the shrine is reduced to embers, townspeople take some home, light their fire with it, and use it to roast three beans for good luck in the coming year. Embers from that fire then set afloat in a river to symbolize the end of the whole ceremony. The next morning I went back to check out the site and found it still smoldering, with people having climbed down in the pit to grill mochi over the heat.