Friday, February 17, 2006



marie namahage Many travelers to Japan don’t get to Tohoku, or the “northern country,” which is too bad because in many ways, it is here that traditional culture is best preserved.

Winter is filled with a number of famous festivals, and I’ve been spending the better part of a week trying to see most of them. I’ll start today with a few pictures of Sedo Matsuri, commonly referred to as "Namahage," which takes place on the Oga Peninsula (get our your atlases). The “real” Namahage takes place on December 31st and is for locals. The Feburary version is for visitors, but if you ever get the chance to see it, you won’t feel that you have been gypped.

The word namahage comes from the local word for “blister.” The namahage themselves are fierce looking demons. As one scholar writes:

Some ethnologists and folklorists suggest it relates to a belief in deities (or spirits) coming from abroad to take away misfortune and bring blessings for the new year, while others believe it is an agricultural custom where the kami from the sacred mountains visit. These kami (spirits) have the power to assure rich harvests, so they are welcomed and feasted.

shisan jinja 1 In the daytime, Shinsan-jinja, where Namahage takes place, is a beautiful spot, nestled up against a mountain side.

namahage on hill

Things change once it is dark. Taiko drumers pound out a fierce rhythm while people huddle around a bonfire. The namahage come down from a snowy mountain side carrying torches and knives (the torches are real; the knives are not).


Once down by the humans, the namahage target are little children – or the occasional foreign visitor who looks very out of place. It ends with a mamemaki (this time it was rice kernels), free mochi and a very civilized lottery.

Thank you for this wonderful piece Marie. I've been living in Akita for two years now and braving the winter is much easier with good ol' Namahage keeping things interesting.

I sent your piece to my friends and family back in NYC and I'm sure it will help them get a feel for my current neck of the woods.

I look forward to your next piece.

Mike! Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I remember now that you wrote earlier, and that you live in Akita, and having just been there, I feel silly for not having done some sort of shout-out. I had a great time. ;-) You live in a great part of Japan.

I haven't been to the Japan Sea side of the country much, but I hope I get to go more often. I had the most incredible sea-food. Normally I lose weight in Japan, but I don't think that was the case this time -- I just wanted to eat as many different kinds of fish as I could, and I was quite the pig.

I hope I get to go to the Kanto matsuri one day soon.

Thanks again for your kind post, and enjoy the rest of the winter (or, to be culturally accurate, the start of spring).
I'll try to enjoy the rest of the winter....although it seems to be playing tricks on us these days. It's been warm and somewhat rainy for the last week and although the snow is melting, I get the distinct impression that it is going to dump snow again before April rolls around.

Akita is full of great festivals. I think Kanto is the most spectacular, but some friends tell me about a particular matsuri down South in the prefecture where men beat each other senseless with long bamboo poles. I don't know the real name of the event, but the point seems to be cranial damage.

If you ever make it for Kanto drop me a line. I know a few of the teams a bit and you may be able to try your hand at lifting a lantern.
Marie, Thanks for this great post. What was the regional cooking like in Oga?

(I just visited Yamagata earlier this month, btw)
Hi Harris -- Thanks for posting! Glad you liked the pictures. I actually do have a few pictures of what I ate in Oga, and will do a post for you soon.
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