In the "snow country" up north, just about every community has its own festival and ritual. In the winter months in Akita Prefecture, this typically involves "namahage," men wearing straw capes and masks depicting fearsome expressions. Posing as demons, they visit the homes of townsfolk to warn children on New Year's Eve to be good. The namahage are treated with tasty snacks and warm drinks, much like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
Oga in Akita Prefecture is perhaps best known for this tradition, though every area in the far north boasts some sort of event.
Each February, Oga hosts the Namahage Sedo Festival, a tradition that began only in the 1950s. It features namahage dances and is an opportunity for visitors to experience northern hospitality.
For city dwellers contemplating a different way to see in the New Year, a good place to start might be the Shorei Festival at the Dewasanzanjinja shrine, located on the summit of 414-meter Mount Hagurosan in Yamagata Prefecture. Be warned, snow on the ground will already be thick and temperatures will be cold.
The all-night event starts with the lighting of a ritual fire to keep people warm, although that is not its intended purpose. The fire commemorates an endemic fever about 1,400 years ago caused by tsutsugamushi mites, whose bite causes severe itching, sometimes infection and other health problems.
These days, a variety of rites are performed well into the early hours of Jan. 1. This includes lighting torches, which symbolizes burning the bugs, and rituals by "yamabushi," ascetics who find magical powers and enlightenment in austere mountain settings.
Another winter tradition is Dainichido Bugaku, a performance of music and dance at the Ohirumemuchijinja shrine, popularly known as Dainichido, in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture.
The dances performed for Shinto gods on Jan. 2 originated in the Nara Period (710-784). It is said that performers came from Nara when the shrine was erected on orders of Emperor Gensho in 718. The dancers taught the villagers how to perform, and the tradition has continued ever since.
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The namahage ritual in Oga, Akita Prefecture, is probably among the most famous in northern Japan. A namahage festival will take place Feb. 8-10 at the Shinzanjinja shrine, reached by special bus services from JR Oga Station, which is about a 50-minute train ride from JR Akita Station.
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