Travel

The ogres of Oga are not as frightening as they may appear

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Although surely one of Japan’s most scenic areas, the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture is off the beaten track and retains an unhurried vibe, still relatively untouched by commercial tourism. Here, it is still possible to see small fishing hamlets as you drive round the coast, rewarded with stunning views at almost every twist in the road.

Along with this scenic beauty, Oga is also known for being home to some of the least attractive characters you are likely to meet in Japan — the Namahage ogres. Attired in rustic straw raincoats and snow boots, topped with demonic masks, the Namahage cut menacing figures as, in pairs, they stomp through Oga’s farming communities on New Year’s Eve, checking up on local residents. There is no real need to fear them, however — unless perhaps you’re a naughty kid or an indolent bride.

If you’re visiting Oga, two enormous Namahage statues guard the entrance to the Oga Tourism Center, making for a great photo op. If you want to see an actual recreation of a typical Namahage visit, however, head to the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum.

Seated on cushions on tatami mats, guests peek into the living quarters of a traditional Japanese home, which serves as the stage. There were no children in the audience during the session we watched, but even the adults flinched when a red ogre and a blue ogre suddenly pounded on the door and then came thundering in. The head of the household came out to greet them, and the trio proceeded to treat us to a humorous show in broad Akita dialect.

The host tried to reassure the ogres that all members of the household are industrious and well-behaved. The Namahage, however, knew differently. One produced a ledger and proceeded to read out details of the host’s lazy grandchildren who don’t study and the daughter-in-law who leaves granny to take care of the home while she goes out enjoying herself every evening.

Fortunately, the Namahage were eventually placated with some good sake and the host’s earnest promise to keep a tighter rein on his errant family members. The Namahage then checked out the audience for good measure, and seeing no children, they asked a few of the younger women if they were being good wives. Then they stomped back out into the snowy night, wishing the family good fortune in the coming year, before moving on to the next house.

Next to the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum is the Namahage Museum, which features both static displays and films about local culture and history, including information on the possible origin of the Namahage. Like many folk customs, there are a number of theories, but the most popular one is based on a legend about a Han emperor who brought five demonic ogres to Japan from China some 2,000 years ago. These ogres terrorized the locals, stealing both crops and young women, but the villagers eventually managed to trick the marauders into leaving.

They made a bet with the monsters: If the ogres could build a flight of 1,000 stone steps though the mountains in one night, the villagers would allow them to take whatever they wanted. However, if they failed in that task, they had to promise to leave the villagers in peace. Just as the 999th step was completed, one of the villagers imitated a rooster crowing, confusing the ogres into thinking morning had arrived. Embarrassed at their failure to win the bet, they departed the area.

Another possible explanation of the Namahage is that they once represented deities or spirits believed to bring good health and fortune to the villagers. Yet another scenario bases them on tales of foreign visitors who somehow came ashore in Akita, where the locals described them as monsters, based on their strange appearances and unintelligible language.

One large hall of the museum features a veritable army of Namahage figures, representing the former 60 districts of the Oga area. Anybody with a nervous disposition should probably avoid spending too much time in this section. As shown by the many variations in style, one size clearly doesn’t fit all when it comes to the Namahage of Oga.

“It is difficult to make general statements about Namahage because the styles differ from district to district,” explained one of the docents at the museum. “For example, they are often depicted as a red ogre and a blue ogre, but not all areas follow this. In some districts the Namahage also make their rounds with a villager in regular clothes, forming a trio. In other cases, it is just the two ogres.”

One convention upheld by all the districts, however, is that only men perform as Namahage.

“Being chosen to play a Namahage is considered an honor, showing that you have good standing in the community,” the docent said. “It is typically the younger men of the area who perform.”

However, in line with the national decline in the population of young people in rural areas,he admitted that sometimes older men now play the role, too.

Households request their Namahage visit in advance and parents may supply the ogres with a list of their children’s bad habits they want addressed. Of course, this is kept a secret from the children.

What about those lazy brides?

“Namahage typically targeted the newer, younger members of the community, so that was children and young women who had married into the family,” explained the docent, who went on to note that with today’s equal opportunity Namahage are now open to reprimanding errant husbands, too, if necessary.

Even if just to escape the monsters, any visit to Oga should include a drive round the coast. From the Namahage Museum, you can head up toward one of the area’s most beautiful spots — Nyudozaki at the cape of the peninsula, which features a grassy slope meandering down to the sea.

Working your way back round the coast, you will see Oga Aquarium Gao, which also affords spectacular views. This may be of interest to families visiting with younger children or marine life fans; though, like most aquariums in Japan, the size of the enclosures for the bigger animals leaves something to be desired in my opinion.

Next up is the Akagami Goshado, Akagami-jinja’s five shrines that have a link to the Namahage story. If you’re feeling energetic, the shrines can be reached by hiking up 999 stone steps, which it is said are in the same spot where the ancient Namahage built their path through the mountains before being tricked into leaving the area.

If it’s still monsters that you are after, Oga also has one more surprise in store. Just a few minutes drive on from the Goshado is Godzilla Rock, so-named for its striking resemblance to Japan’s famous movie monster in profile.

The best time of day to see the Godzilla view is just before sunset. It can be a little bit hard to find the right place to stop. We had to pick our way over the rocky beach, but then suddenly, there he was.

There is no mistaking which rock you are meant to be looking at. When the setting sun lights up the sky behind the rocks, Godzilla seems to come to life, paying homage to his ancient monster senpai (seniors) here in Oga.

Getting there: From Tokyo, it takes just under four hours on the Komachi Shinkansen to reach Akita. From there, take the Oga Line out to the peninsula, or pick up a rental car in Akita and drive to the Oga area’s various attractions. For more information on the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum and Namahage Museum, visit www.namahage.co.jp/namahagekan/english.