Dosojin fire festival is a crazy, bizarre, frightening, and mysterious Japanese winter event, held at Nozawa Onsen on January 15th every year in Nagano prefecture. Does it make sense when two groups of people encounter a fight against each other where one group tries to burn down the Shaden (Shrine) while other group tries to resist it? Yes it does make sense as it is a ritual of the villagers of Nozawa Onsen which has been followed by them since 1863.

This tradition was first introduced at the very end of Edo period (1603-1868). By observing this unique festival (or so called matsuri) they pray for having an abundant harvest, good fortune, prosperity in life and health in the upcoming year.

Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Fire Festival in Nagano. Photo Credit: U-ichiro Murakami at Flickr.

It is a scary type festival which is a very famous winter festival throughout Japan. You might have seen about this festival on TV or some videos on YouTube. Does it sound charming or scarring? To me it sounds like much more attractive than being scared of burning to death. Although you may get scared of seeing someone gets injured during the festival when playing with the fire.

In the harsh winter season on January when snowfall is expected to be seen is typical in Nagano but seeing people playing with fire to win a battle is kind of bizarre in this 21st century. Please bear in mind that, we don’t live in a medieval era.

Nozawa Onsen – Hot Spring and Ski Resort

Nozawa Onsen in the spring. Photo Credit: Hideyuki KAMON at Flickr.

Nozawa Onsen is a beautiful village located at the foot of Mt. Kenashi in Shimotakai district, Nagano with approximately 4,000 residents. It is a very popular hot spring and ski resort in Nagano prefecture. It was used as one of the venues of the 1988 Nagano Winter Olympic. Nozawa onsen is absolutely amazing with many public hot springs, restaurants, bars, ryokans, and the ski slopes and courses.

The village is blessed with massive powder snowfall. It is certainly a paradise of snow powder in Japan. Nothing is better than skiing and snowboarding on the surface which is covered by powder snow in winter. Due to its snow quality, history and size of the resort it has become a nice winter holiday destination for among skiers and snowboarders.

A local shrine during the winter months at Nozawa Onsen. Photo Credit: caleb kung at Flickr.

As winter arrives in this village, many winter events are presented to the visitors. During the evening time visitors have the chance to experience the fireworks display. It is truly magnificent on the 31st night watching the fireworks display out there and night time skiing is absolutely possible on that night. You will be offered sake free of charge to celebrate the New Year Countdown.

Villagers of Nozawa Onsen are not lunatic; please don’t think of such because they follow a tradition that what their ancestors used to do in the past by celebrating the Dosojin Fire Festival in January. They may act like lunatic on the night of January 15th so keep your eyes open until the shrine is burned down.

Nozawa ski and snowboard school is what you want to learn some ski and snowboard techniques from. It has a team of professional international instructors who could make your first time skiing experience unforgettable. It does not matter whether you are new or experienced; the matter is that they are going to go to help you whenever you need them. Learn the offered lessons from them and then perform like an experienced skier or snowboarder on the slopes of the mountain. Gear up!

Yakudoshi – Years of Bad Luck

Yakudoshi is nothing but a Shinto belief that has been passed down for ages. Usually, it means a period of time of misfortune, and bad luck. According to Shinto beliefs ages of 25 and 42 are considered Yakudoshi for men. While on the other hand 19 and 33-year old female are considered to be unlucky ages.

The Dosojin fire festival is all about a battle only for men but not for women. 25 and 42-year old guys show their bravery by building the Shaden (wooden shrine) and burning it down fiercely. Though, 25-year old men’s responsibility is to protect the shaden at the base from the villagers who want to destroy it by fire.

About the Festival

The shrine (Shaden) is burning. Photo Credit: Nozawa Holidays.

Some cities suits in season. If you agree with me then I could respectfully say that Nozawa onsen village becomes much brighter in the winter season than the rest of the seasons. Winter is special here as it gears up the whole village residents welcoming one of the three biggest legendary fire festivals of Japan. Yes, they eagerly wait for this yearly winter event which takes place at Nozawa Onsen on January 15th. It is a fixed date that does not change!

So if you want to see a battle on a freezing cold night, then come here on January 14th, 2016 or even before. My last visit to this gorgeous festival happened in 2014. I stayed there a week skiing on the slopes till the end of the festival. That was truly impressive!

The Sacred Trees

Even though the main festival is held on the night of January 15th, the excitement that comes first is the cutting down the trees and then dragging them down from the forest to the festival site through the Hikage Ski Trail. Logging of the five sacred beech trees happens in mid-October in autumn. The five holy trees will be cut down when they fulfill three requirements.

They are: it has to be straight, it has to be about 30 centimeters in diameter, and finally it has to be 18 meters tall. Once a beech tree fulfills these all three requirements then it is selected to be cut down. On January 13th, two groups of people aged 25 and 42 are responsible to drag the trees down to the ceremony site from the forest taking more than 3 hours.

Making the Shaden

To make a shaden which resembles an air traffic control tower, it takes a team of nearly 100 men consisting of 25 and 42-year olds. They start building the wooden structure (shrine) on January 14th that continues until late at night. The next day in the morning they finish constructing the wooden shrine (shaden) completely.

Making a shaden takes time and it is a dangerous work that should be done efficiently. That’s for why; contractors are not allowed to drink any alcohol until they finish their project. Then, a priest from Kosuge Shrine performs a ritual endowing it with a dosojin. Please note that, the Dosojin fire festival is dedicated to them. I have seen people express their joys right after building the shrine.

The Battle Begins

As the sun sets, they all (the 25 and 42-year old men) get prepared to have a fight against the villagers. While on the other hand, villagers fuel up on sake before attacking the shrine with fire flame of torches. The 24 years old young guys set their mind to be fearless guards armed with pine branches at the base of the shaden to protect the elders of 42-year old men who climb up on the top of the shaden.

They drink a lot of sake as a result they start singing, clapping and chanting from the top like they all have gone insane. The first attack comes exactly at 20:30. Every wave of attack is dangerous for the 25-year old men whose job is to prevent the shaden from the villagers. The villagers want to burn it to the ground while 25-year old men try to extinguish the fire with pine branches. This is a battle should not be missed by you. You should not cross the line, who knows you may get injured!

The Battle Ends

Fireworks display during the festival. Photo Credit: Nozawa Holidays.

The famous hot spring and ski resort Nozawa Onsen turns to a war zone for an hour or more. The torch bearing villagers attempt to set fire to the shrine while it is their utmost (25-year old men) duty to prevent every attempt made by the villagers. It sounds like a real street fight between mobs and police.

The 25 years old guys sing and swayed constantly and try to resist every single attack. The battle continues till 22:00. In fact the battle takes an hour and a half to end up completely. Then the 42-year old men are finally let down off the shaden before it becomes a bonfire and then it is completely burned to the ground. They all seem tired a little bit after chanting and singing for an hour.

Before the Main Event

Before the main event is occurred there are other events which take place from 19:00 in the evening. At 19:00, the ceremonial fire source beings its journey when 6 representatives from among the people climacteric ages got the real flame from the Kono family. Then the fire is attached to the large torches and they head toward the festival site singing dosojin song.

They make a bonfire from which handmade torches are lit up to set a fire to the shaden. About 19:30 ceremonial lanterns are erected. The fireworks display, parade and drum troupe performance begins exactly at 20:00. The whole festival is scheduled to be completed within 4 hours. Due to the freezing weather condition, you are advised to dress warmer. You can learn how to dress well for the winter in Japan here.

What is Dosojin?

So far you have read about how the festival is celebrated by the residents of Nozawa Onsen. Do you have any idea what the word “Dosojin” mean? Dosojin are seen to be a folk deity set down at village boarders. They are believed to ward off danger near village borders and crossroads. You may see their stone statues when you take a walk along the street in the villages located all over Nagano. Japanese people worship Dosojin for bringing fertility and children growth.

The Lantern

Photo Credit: Nagano Prefecture Tourism Association.

The shaden is constructed to ignite it just right after the end of one hour entertaining fight. Whereas the lantern pole you see during the festival is built when the first boy is born to a couple at Nozawa Onsen. The decorated lantern poles are dedicated to the Gods in a prayer for the first born son will grow up healthy, good fortune and have a happy marriage in future. Please note that, it is also burned with the shaden.

The lantern is hung around a 9 meter pole. There are two parts of it of which the upper half part is made of cedar wood and the lower half part is made of beech wood. When you look at it you would be amazed seeing its decoration styles and techniques. This is a very creative and artistic pole which requires white folding hand fan, lantern with bells, sacred cloth to make an umbrella shaped cover, split bamboo strips covered with paper flowers and pieces of New Year’s calligraphy. This is a complete handmade artwork done by the family members of that new born child.

How to Get There?

What is the easiest and quickest way to access to Nozawa Onsen? As far as I know, you could reach there by taxi, bus, and train. However, there is an easiest way of getting to Nozawa onsen from Narita International Airport, Tokyo by Chuo Taxi. Taxi fare per adult is just 12,900-13,900 JYP from Narita. Find more information here. Chuo taxi service is available 24 hours according to your flight schedule so there is no need to worry about missing it.

There is no train station at Nozawa onsen but it is connected by bus to Iiyama and Nagano Dentetsu lines. You can get to JR Nagano Station from Tokyo Station by Nagano Shinkansen and then you could directly access to Onsen area by limited excess bus. If you want to get to Nozawa onsen from Tokyo by highway bus then there is a direct bus service from Shinjuku (Tokyo) to Nagano. Please read this page to get to know more ways to access to Nozawa onsen.

Where to Stay?

Nozawa Onsen offers high quality traditional Japanese Inn or so called Ryokan. You can stay in a Ryokan than staying in a hotel. Though you have to know some ryokan customs before you book a room there. Check out the following hotels and ryokan:

Sumiyosiya Ryokan – A 3-minute walk from the Yu-Road moving walkway to Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort.

Shirakaba – A 20-minute drive from JR Togari Nozawa Onsen Train Station.

Altitude Nozawa – A 5-minute drive from Iiyamahokuryu Hot Spring Family Ski Area.

Bamboo-Hill Sasaokaso – A 5-minute walk to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort.

Ikemoto – A 10-minute walk away from the Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort ski slopes.

All these ryokan and hotels provide beautiful furnished rooms, free Wi-Fi and hot springs facility to their customers.

Please Come and Get Some!

Visiting Nozawa Onsen in winter is a truly magical experience. Visitors just don’t get there for skiing and snowboarding rather they want to feel the excitement of the Dosojin fire festival. Many visitors even stay there for more than two weeks till the end of the festival.

Usually they arrive before the 31st night to celebrate New Year skiing and viewing fireworks display in the evening. You are served free sake during the New Year and fire festival celebration. In fact Noawa onsen villagers are hospitable and peace loving except they are to show their bravery on the night of January 15.

Many burning embers and sparks are seen in the air that surly could burn holes in clothing. So I would recommend you to wear an old jacket or coat (expendable clothing). Get rid of this problem wearing an old jacket and enjoy every moment with full of excitement. Neither you (as a visitor) nor women are allowed to ignite the shaden, only the male villagers could do it. You have to observe everything they perform being only a spectator. That’s it! I think you should come and see this year fire festival.