In the north of Nagano Prefecture, mid-January is the dead of winter. White mountains rise up into cloud. Fields are blanketed in snow, woods are bare and villages are hushed by cold. All along the roadsides, snowbanks rise as high as car windows, their sides revealing layered strata of snowfall after snowfall — the geology of winter. This is real snow country.
Tucked against the mountains near the prefecture’s northern edge, the village of Nozawa Onsen isn’t known for much. Other than the ski slopes above the town (often bypassed for steeper ones elsewhere) and the steaming waters of the hot springs that give the place its name (too hot for any but the most hardened bathers), there’s very little to see here. The only thing that makes Nozawa Onsen famous is its fire festival.
On Jan. 15 each year — koshōgatsu, meaning “little New Year’s” — the place explodes into this mad spectacle.
When we arrive an hour or so after nightfall, crowds are already gathered in the field below the town around a heron’s-nest of a structure, a ragged platform of branches supported by four straight trees. On this are perched Nozawa Onsen’s 42-year-old men (42 is an “unlucky” age).
At the base, lost in the crowd of locals and eager foreigners, are the equally unlucky 25-year-olds. Their task is to protect the structure behind them, while the rest of the crowd attempt to burn it down. It’s a grueling rite of passage that unites all of the villagers born that year.
We nudge our way into the crowd. The air is icy, the snow squeaks coldly beneath our feet — and the anticipation is palpable.
Part carefully choreographed dance and part utter chaos, the festival is pure excitement. Fireworks, exploding suddenly, loud as gunshots in the cold darkness above, act as a starting gun. The youngest citizens (babies strapped to their mothers’ backs, toddlers in their fathers’ arms) ceremoniously accompany the first blazing hemp torches down the slope, and are gently repelled by the young men. Squealing schoolchildren come next, followed by their elder siblings, until the whole thing turns from play-fight into a full fire-fueled brawl.
An old man passes me icy sake from a tin cup on a chain. It burns my throat with cold and alcohol, but instantly warms me down to my numbed toes. I translate for an American who has stumbled into me and now holds the cup. “He wants to know where you’re from,” I shout through the din. “The Yokosuka army base,” he replies.
I am momentarily baffled. Yokosuka, way down in Kanagawa Prefecture, seems a world away. But it turns out that the festival is massively popular among Japan’s expat population, who revel in the excitement, fire and abundant free alcohol.
The American melts back into the crowd, and I turn back to the event. My traveling companion, a festival enthusiast who is witnessing Nozawa’s for the first time, is tipping back cups of sake like an old hand, quizzing a suitably impressed local on the event’s foreign fan club. “It’s the Australians who work in the ski resort who put the word out,” the old guy is saying, “and it brings the tourists in, so we’re all happy.”
We slip away in the warming darkness, down to where the young men are slowly losing the fight, as they do every year. Flames are creeping across the ropes that hold the structure and, from where we’re standing now, I can see sparks flying as the embattled youths beat against the flames with wet ropes, trying to extinguish the fires. Both defenders and attackers are soot-smeared and exhausted.
Then, at last, the battle is lost. Smoke seethes from between the tree trunks. Up above, the older men take a bow and call it a night, climbing down from their perch. It seems mere moments before the entire platform is engulfed in flames. “Isn’t it awfully dangerous?” I ask a village elder who has cornered my companion and is slurring expansively about the festival’s importance. He blinks at me, then offers a cynical wave of his hand. “Oh, it’s not like it used to be. Look at all the ridiculous safety precautions. They’ve taken all the danger out of it; all the fun. It’s not like it was back in my day.” His voice trails off.
I look around for these ridiculous safety precautions, and fail to see any. We’re standing so close to the flames that the skin is pulled tight and hot across my cheekbones. The platform above is now alight, and sparks shower up into the sky as the green wood crackles and bursts into flame.
The heat drives us back as the entire structure goes up in a towering pillar of fire. An old man slips on the melting snow, falls, and is drunkenly unable to stand up again. Several of us rush to drag him to his feet and away from the flames. Seconds later, the structure crashes to the ground where he had fallen.
By midnight, most of the crowd has moved off, and the arena of battle is quiet but for the crackling of the fire. Then the peace is broken suddenly when the village’s volunteer fire-fighters appear and start up their chainsaws to cut the flaming tree trunks into a more manageable bonfire.
We head back to our minshuku (bed and breakfast) through quiet, darkened streets, with only the steam from the hot springs for company. Letting ourselves in, we dive under the covers in our frosty room, hair smelling of smoke and eyes full of the after-images of fire.
Wandering the streets the following morning, bellies full of rice, salted fish and — of course — the pickled leaves of Nozawana (a type of turnip) for which the place is locally famous, all is quiet. A few eggs and bunches of vegetables simmering in the central communal cooking springs fill the air with the smell of food. A few old ladies are hunched over picks, clearing ice from the steep paths outside their houses. There is no sign of last night’s American from Yokosuka, and I presume he has joined the rest of the foreign skiing and boarding crowd in the hills. Looking up I see they’re dusted in fresh powder glistening into the clear blue sky.
On our way to the station, we pass a snow-covered Shinto dosōjin statue at a crossroads. These stone guardian deities are said to protect borders and those in liminal states.
I wonder if it is really just pure coincidence, sake and Australian enthusiasm that have made the festival so popular among foreigners. It is, after all, really a dosōjin festival, feting these gods who, among other things, are the guardians of pilgrims and travelers.
Getting there: Nozawa Onsen can be reached by rail from Nagano Station on the charmingly quaint Iiyama Line to Kamisakai. The trip takes 70 min. and costs ¥740 one way. From Kamisakai, it’s a 4-km trek to the village, though minshuku and pension owners are often happy to pick up guests. The Fire Festival is held annually on Jan. 15.