SKI FESTIVALS JAPAN – POWDER KEG

SKI FESTIVALS JAPAN – POWDER KEG
THE ANNUAL DOSOJIN FIRE FESTIVAL IN NOZAWA ONSEN, JAPAN, ISN’T WHAT YOU’D EXPECT, AND WAY CRAZIER
THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE
WORDS AND PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY

Touring the Japanese Alps of Nagano Prefecture we’d already been skiing daily in ever deepening powder for a week last January. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any deeper we’d arrived in the village of Nozawa Onsen amidst another dense snowfall. Most of our group disappeared into the town’s maze of shops and steaming watercourses, but a couple of us couldn’t resist heading up the mountain. Though it was 3 p.m. and already into the gloaming of January dusk, we’d managed three runs in steep-treed chutes, waist-to-chest deep with just enough light to tunnel through. At this time of day at a busy resort (and it was busy), it seemed insane. But nowhere near as insane as the annual Dosojin Fire Festival that night.

Japan boasts hundreds of crazy festivals (matsuri)—like the Hounen in Komaki where huge wooden penises are paradedll to celebrate a bountiful harvest. And while such traditions may be comic (if not surreal) fun for the whole family, the ‘best’ matsuri are also the most dangerous, such as the hexennial Ombashira Festival where participants ride a giant log downhill into the town of Suwa—it tops the insanity list with regular maimings and occasional death. But the Dosojin is no wilting flower when it comes to potential catastrophe.

Dating to 1863, Dosojin is held on January 15 every year to pray for a plentiful harvest, health, and good fortune. An old belief in Japan dictates that the two unluckiest ages for men are 25 and 42. Local males of these ages—up to 100 of them—construct a 60-foot-high beechwood shrine (shaden) endowed with its own god by a Kosuge priest. Several lantern poles (toro) are also erected by families celebrating the birth of a first son.

As the festival began, the 42-year-olds perched atop the shrine and the 25-year-olds stood guard at its base. The free sake handed out on the streets for hours earlier, was now dredged from huge barrels in bamboo cups and passed around liberally. By the time a cabal of torch-bearing villagers attempted to break through the young guards and ignite the shaden, the surging crowd of thousands were irretrievably wasted. The battle intensified. Defenders tried to put out the torches by striking them with pine branches; punches were thrown, people slipped on ice and snow, chaos reigned supreme. The attack lasted an hour until finally, both the shrine and lantern poles went up in huge balls of flame, conflagrations so dangerously molten they put Nevada’s annual Burning Man to shame.

The human tide reversed as people tried to escape the heat. Nothing could put out the fire. Not even the suddenly renewed snowfall accumulating on smoldering remains. But it seemed that the good-luck offering had worked—certainly for skiers. Tomorrow would be another insane powder day in Nozawa Onsen.