Face to face with Japan's Namahage demons
It is early evening on the second Saturday in February. I am deep in the mountains of the Oga peninsula, many hundreds of kilometers north of Tokyo. Snow blankets the ground and trees. I'm shivering in the clearing of a local shrine, surrounded by other visitors. Suddenly, a roar booms out from a nearby footpath leading into the dark hills above. An excited buzz runs through the crowd.
The Namahage are coming!
They emerge from the mountains by the dozen in a ferocious stomp, each hoisting a torch, their scraggly hair, ferocious masks and woven-straw overcoats contrasting sharply with the modern fashions of the people who have come to see them. "Naguko wa inega!" shouts one. ("Any crying kids out there?”)
In the folklore of the Oga peninsula, creatures called Namahage emerge from the mountains every New Year's Eve, threatening to spirit troublemaking kids away from their families. I can't speak for times of old, but nowadays, this is accomplished by local men in Namahage costumes. Roaming from house to house, brandishing buckets and fearsome (prop) knives, they pound on doors and demand to see any uncooperative children, generally scaring the youngest out of their wits.
Young brides are another target. It is the ritual of the fathers or husbands to intercede on their family's behalf, plying the Namahage with food and saké. Thus placated, the Namahage leave with good wishes for the New Year -- and a stern warning that they'll be back if any youngsters get a mind to misbehave. The trauma of coming face to face with a monster, it is hoped, will put even the naughtiest little scalawag back on the straight and narrow.
The actual New Year's march is only open to residents, but there are several opportunities for outsiders to join in the fun as well. On December 31, many local hotels and inns stage Namahage rituals for tourists, largely identical to the ones that play out in private homes. And on the second weekend of February, the Shinzan Jinja shrine throws a festival that is open to the public: the Sedo Matsuri.
That's where I am now.
At 6:00pm, after a ritual Shinto ceremony to purify the Namahage masks, selected local men turn into monsters for a night. Disappearing into the mountains for a time, they return shortly thereafter in full monster countenances. Roaring menacingly, they dance around bonfires, play taiko drums and hunt through the crowd for any kids to terrify. The inevitable resulting friendly pat on the head is good luck for anyone, child or adult. Everyone forgets the cold as we are swept away in a fantasy straight out of the pages of Japanese folklore.
As the festival draws to a close, the Namahage hand out rice cakes covered with powdered black sesame seeds, another gesture of good fortune for the coming year. Spinning a stray piece of straw dropped by the Namahage as they retreat back into the hills, I suspect that a lot fewer kids will be misbehaving in Oga this year.
For access and schedule information, visit www.oganavi.com.