The last few days have been full of winter festivals! In my neck of the woods, as in many rural areas, New Year isn’t complete until Koshogatsu (小正月, “Little New Year”, or New Year under the old, lunar calendar), 15 January.
New Year’s Day is traditionally a quiet day for eating New Year’s food (which, in this area, includes tofu as well as the nationwide more famous items) and visiting the local shrine. In fact, it’s not even known as “Oshogatsu”, simply as “Toshigoshi”, or “Passing over into the next year”.
Koshogatsu, on the other hand, is the time for communal celebrations. The exact form of these varies from community to community, but the underlying theme is to pray for a prosperous year, with health, protection from misfortune, and a good harvest. The most common festival is Sai no kami (賽の神). In my community, this is takes the form of a bonfire in the middle of the rice fields. There seems to be some primal urge which crosses cultures to create a large fire in the middle of winter to fight back against the dark and cold...
The festival began with a neighbourhood notice, passed by hand from house to house in the usual way, asking for volunteers to help with the preparations. I duly turned up at the appointed time to find, as I suspected, that all my companions were male. They were momentarily taken aback at what to do not only with a woman but with the resident foreigner, but concluded that I could accompany the tree-cutting party up the nearby mountainside.
So off we marched, with ropes and saws, in search of some suitable victims. A walk in the woods sounds pleasant, and indeed it was beautiful, but the fact that there is about a metre and a half of snow on the ground made progress rather slower than it would be in summer! The people at the front of the file had the worst of it, falling into air pockets beneath the snow every so often… However, we made it up the slope to the chosen tree and, after everyone (including the tree!) purified themselves with a sip of sake and a pinch of salt, the ritual conch shell trumpet was blown and the men set to work with a chain saw…
My first actual work of the day was dragging one of the smaller trees down the snowy track and across the main road to the festival site, among the rice fields and on the banks of the river. The next task was to tie bundles of rice straw all over the trees until the branches were no longer visible. This took a while, and as they worked, my neighbours chatted, enquired about each other’s elderly parents, and reminisced about days past. These local festivals are not simply about the show; they play an important role in holding communities together. And they are extremely local - in my small valley alone, there were festivities in six different places on the same night, including one just across the river.
Once the trees were covered in straw, bundles of calligraphy were tied to the tops - when your calligraphy flies to heaven, it is said that your handwriting will improve! The hairy creations then had to be “planted” again… Modern technology lent a hand in the form of a mechanical digger, but standing the trees upright required many people pushing from one side, pulling on ropes from the other, as well as the digger pressing down on the base of the trunk. After much huffing and puffing, the trees were finally in place and, after piling up earth and snow around the base and adding New Year’s decorations to be burnt, ready for the evening’s festivities.
The lighting of the bonfires, the smaller one for children and the larger one for adults, attracted everyone from young children to people who have lived in the area for eighty years. The head of the neighbourhood led us all in bowing to the gods, before we set bundles of rice straw on fire and used them to light the trees. Rice straw burns quickly and so, despite all the lengthy preparations, after about ten minutes the fire had burned down. In some communities people roast dried squid or hotdog sausages over the embers, but not here, and almost before I knew it people were traipsing off home through the night…
But it was not quite over! Part of the ritual is to throw coins into the fire as you pray for health and prosperity in the coming year. The following morning, a couple of my neighbours came to invite me to hunt for coins with them. Armed with rubber gloves, sticks and a pasta ladle with a jagged edge, we combed through the ashes in search of treasure. Despite extensive searching, my total haul came to 813 yen, a bell, and a small ceramic horse… I don’t think I will make my fortune from this festival, but I will certainly be back for more community work and celebrations next year.
Emma is a regular contributor to Odigo. She's originally from England and has been living in Japan for over 20 years! See Emma's favourite spots in Japan and follow her trips on Odigo in her profile below.