Festival Roundup

February 19th, 2008 by Steph

We’re now coming to the end of February Festival Madness. Tohoku is a flurry of winter celebrations all month long, though for some reason we squeeze most of the action in somewhere between the second and third weekends. Allow me to sum up:


Any festival whose sole purpose is to make small children cry already has a plus next to it in my book. Namahage are the demons which inhabit the Oga peninsula, just to the south. They have red or blue faces and are dressed in bushy straw tunics. Twice a year, they descend from Mt. Shinzan, growling with torches in hand. They proceed to terrorize all the small children they can find, making them cry, and then ask if there are any naughty crying children nearby that they can eat up. Brilliant.

Everyone gathers around a big bonfire at the Shinzan Shrine, while the demons make a few circuits through the crowd (stopping for photo ops of course). Anyone who picks up the straw which falls from their clothes will be free of illness for the rest of the winter. Taiko also plays a prominent role in the festival, with folks dressed as demons wailing on the drums.

Namahage Taiko

The festival has an ominous-bogeyman-in-the-dark-with-fire feel that is a delicious change from the usual sugary sweet snow festival.


The hot air balloon launch, or kamifusenage, is a rather poetic and beautiful event. Cars choke narrow icy streets in a mad lineup for parking, and everyone heads out to a big snowy field. Here, huge elegantly decorated paper balloons (with ads on the other side) are filled with hot air via blowtorch. When the balloons are filled, a fire is lit at the mouth, and a warm glow fills the balloon, lighting the pictures from the inside. Balloons are released about 8 at a time, and soar off into the sky. Occasionally they’ll catch on fire or explode, but usually they simply soar away. The balloons aren’t weighted very heavily, so they swing back and forth like pendulums as they ascend. They stay lit for quite a long time, as they float up into a sea of stars. Special booths are set up where you can write your wishes for the year on balloons, which are then set free to deliver your wishes to the heavens.

Hot Air Balloons

Kariwano’s TUG-OF-WAR

The tug of war is held on the same night as the balloon launch. It’s possible to do these two events in succession if you play your cards right… unfortunately, we didn’t, and arrived in Kariwano to witness a mass exodus after the fight. Which is fine, because all I wanted to do was see the massive 20 ton rope anyway. While I was admiring the rope two dudes came by with a scythe and cut off a huge hunk for me to take home.

Not the most photogenic festival, but it certainly is the most exciting. Ranked as one of the world’s Top 10 Most Dangerous Festivals, folks descend upon the tiny town of Rokugo to bash each other with 20 foot long bamboo poles. Requirements: Helmet? Check. Over 18? Check. Willingness to throw caution to the wind coupled with a fondness for alcohol? Check.

Hundreds of people flock to this testosterone fest to watch two teams beat the crap out of each other in 3 rounds. Helmets are ripped off. Bamboo poles bend and snap under the pressure. It’s an all out brawl. To make matters even more stupidly dangerous, the third round is fought around a bonfire, after everyone lights the flags on the end of their poles on fire.


My toes were frozen, and I didn’t care. The air was crackling first with anticipation, and then later with embers. A video taken in less than favorable lighting conditions is included below for your enjoyment:


After the fight, we were adopted by a local from Rokugo, otherwise known as my Drunken New Best Friend, who took us under her wing and straight to the only bar still open in town, where we downed a few beers and talked about how great we all were.


I had high hopes for this festival; it seemed to have everything: a grill your own food tent, snow sculptures, an ice bar, and fireworks. It was a fun way to spend an evening with friends, especially after a High Priority Mission in the area. But I think once was enough, and I wouldn’t make a big effort to see this one again. Maybe it was because we went on a Sunday night, but this festival seemed pretty dead… like a toned-down version of the Sapporo Snow Festival.

3 Responses to “Festival Roundup”

  1. mom Says:

    Great shows! You make it look like the Japanese spend most of their time making costumes, drumming and having a great time!

  2. Christeph in Japan » Blog Archive » There’s Something in the Air Says:

    [...] Christeph in Japan Inching toward spring in nothern Japan. « Festival Roundup [...]

  3. Christeph in Japan » Blog Archive » Winter Wrap-up Says:

    [...] fall on the same day, making it difficult to see everything unless you live in the prefecture for multiple years. With a few exceptions, we were finally able to see the remaining festivals that had, up [...]

Leave a Reply