by Michael Weybret
As embers fall down on a field of onlookers, a small war is waged between two groups of men in the small mountain village of Nqzawa, Japan. A group of 42-year-olds are sitting atop the shaden, a nest-like structure built of felled trees and kindling over the last few days. Thirty yards away and gathered around a bon fire are more older men lighting torches and bringing them to the foot of the shaden and beating the timber structure. Defending the shaden is the village’s younger generation. A few dozen 25-year-old boys hang on with ropes and push back as their elders beat the shaden, and more often they beat the boys, with their fire sticks in a display of resilience and strength as the older men lay siege to the well defended structure.
I stare on in amazement from deep in the packed crowd at this ancient right of passage, unable to look away from the faces covered in sweat, ash, and elation. My concentration breaks when a much older Japanese man grabs my shoulder, his hatchimaki (head band) tells me he is a former participant in the event, and hands me a comically large bottle of sake; it’s my turn. While the participants in this right of passage endure great pain it appears to be the job of the onlookers to, frankly, get drunk and enjoy the show. Not one to be rude, I take a liberal rip of some of the best sake a white guy like me has ever enjoyed. Yeah, Japan rules.
The Nozawaonsen Dosojin Matsuri, or Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival, is an ancient tradition to bring good fortune to the village, and a hell of a great site to see. Almost by accident my friend Alex and I wandered into the village, not knowing what to expect. We had heard more than a few drunken stories of the fire sticks, burnt spectators, and people missing the bus back to the hostel we were staying at, and this year’s festivities did not disappoint.
The whole event lasts about four hours and while the young men defending the shaden looked to be getting the proverbial shit handed to them, they have quite an impressive record. I was told that it has been over 130 years since the elders successfully lit the shaden, and this year the home team maintained its winning streak.
Eventually, the 42-year-olds admit defeat and it is time for the real show to begin. Everyone is covered in ash, soot, and received burns to their clothing and skin. The younger boys untie themselves and embrace each other, as well as the men that just bombarded them with flaming reeds (sportsmanship at its best). Ultimately, it doesn’t take much to light the shaden. A few well-placed torches, and what five minutes ago was a pretty rad place for a picnic, becomes an inferno with flames reaching a good 60 to 70ft in the air. What a site.
Nozawa Onsen really does have a beautiful tradition on its hands. It isn’t hard to see through the many foreigners that have come to watch the show and recognize the abundance of local pride. It began as a way to bring good fortune to the city during the harsh winter months. The ages of 42 and 25 are unlucky ages in Japanese culture, so these men are chosen to beat back the bad spirits. Being 26, I watched the younger boys closely and saw how much joy they got out of the day. This festival, I am sure, is quite the coming of age celebration as they enter the brunt of manhood.
After not missing our bus (narrowly), the long drive home allowed my mind to wander to thoughts of my own culture’s rights of passage. In the States, I suppose we have graduation ceremonies. A formal announcement of our completion of a chapter in our formal education where we get to wear robes and silly hats while a dude we have never met delivers a grand lecture on how proud he is of us.
Doesn’t really have the same gusto, does it? I am a bit nostalgic for the days of old. The days when proving your manhood felt like something, even if that something was a flaming log in your face. At least it felt real. For me, turning 16 just meant I had to go to the DMV.
So I raise my wooden cup thingy of sake to you, badass dudes of ancient tradition. For your dedication, your pride in responsibility, your bravery in the face of change, and for always coming up with excuses to beat 25 year old little shits like me with flaming sticks. Kanpai!
Michael Weybret is the founder of Do Something Cool and acting editor-n-chief. Born and raised in California, Michael now lives on the road exploring the US in search for untold stories, hidden gems, and cinnamon rolls.
In addition to his work for DSC Michael is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer.