Sake and Fire at Japan’s Nozawaonsen Fire Festival

In the small Japanese ski town of Nozawaonsen a unique tradition unfolds every winter. It’s the Dosojin Matsuri, one of Japan’s legendary fire festivals. Furious battles, flowing sake and a raging inferno transport the town to an ancient and mystic place. Although it was my second year attending, I still found it hard to grasp the reality of the event.

The days leading up to the burn are drunken madness. Villagers wearing old cotton jumpsuits drag tree trunks through the streets, singing and shouting. Drinking sake is a serious part of the ceremony so everyone is shitfaced. The felled trees are the Dosojin, spirit-gods of roads and borders that will support the Shaden, a five story tower of straw and wood.

On the fateful evening of the festival thirty odd men in cotton jumpsuits sit atop the Shaden, swaying and chanting as they revel on their perch. Tension and blood-alcohol-levels rise in the crowd below. Younger men surround the base of the tower. Some of them hang on to ropes for support, too drunk to stand on their own. Amongst the crowd old villagers sport huge sake bottles roped to their bodies with cups hanging round their necks. They swagger about, shouting and thrusting sake cups into hands.  

Fire blooms on the edge of the square and the crowd roars. We’re corralled to make a hasty corridor before a ten-foot bail of flaming straw bounces past us like an Olympic torch. The bearers can’t walk in a straight line and I duck as the flames roar over my head. The flame lights a bonfire some fifty meters distance from the tower and the battle begins.

Villagers brandish their weapons – straw torches of varying sizes to be set ablaze. Once lit, they march singing and shouting towards the Shaden. They storm the tower guards and smash them with their torches mercilessly. Meanwhile, the young men try desperately to keep flames at bay with nothing but their hands. The brutality lasts hours. Fire is everywhere – sparks rain down over the crowd and I pat the embers out of a stranger’s hair. I am at the gates of Helm’s Deep; I am amongst Oruk’hai. 

The bonfire is rolled on long sticks toward the Shaden. As it passes me the heat overwhelms and I turn away. The gap between fire and tower close and the young guards start to falter. Their faces are blackened and their hair singed. No mercy is shown to them. As they fall beneath the pounding of fire and flame the tower sparks. Cheering and clapping, their hands and heads raised high, the older men descend from the tower lest they be consumed.

An inferno ensues. The main structure ignites and a wave of heat pushes against the crowd. I stagger back from the force of it. My vision is stained orange and blurred by sake. Sparks and smoke curl into crimson tongues some fifteen meters high. Massive totems are carried and toppled into the burn, their prayer flags billow and disintegrate. The flags carry the wishes of the townspeople. My friend translates, “that one’s fertility, that one’s big new skis.”

While the the Shaden smoulders Nozawaonsen parties. Bars are packed and ignited with the energy of Dosojin Matsuri. They have a local expression in Nozawaonsen, “drink until you die.” Needless to say I felt like death the next morning.