Nozawa Fire Festival

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Jan 29, 2010

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Flag of Japan  , Nagano,
Friday, January 15, 2010

From Shirahone, the pair of us crazies needed to get to Nozawa for the Nozawa Fire Festival via Hakuba to drop off our baggage. This trip included 3 buses and two trains! We left our Shirahone Ryokan at 10am, and didn't get to Nozawa until 7pm! We did stop off in Hakuba though for 1 or 2 hours to check into our lodge.

It was apparent as soon as we got to Nozawa that it was going to be a CRAZY night. For one thing, it was absolutely bucketing down in snow. Our down coats weren't going to stay dry for very long. Task number 1 became to find some umbrellas or ponchos to keep us dryish through the night.

While wondering through the streets looking for umbrellas and snack, we heard chanting and saw people walking along the streets with Sake and carrying sticks of fire!

Anyway, we finally got to the site of the festival. The idea of the festival is that there is a big wooden shrine, and two teams made up of 42 year old mean and 25 year old men. One team defend the shrine, while the other team devise plans to set fire to it. The older men sit on top of the shrine and chant (taunt?), while the other team devise plans to set it on fire (and then act them out). All the while, free sake is passed around.

This year, the defending team had a definite advantage with the ridiculously heavy snow. In fact, the snow was so heavy, that they even had trouble lighting the bonfire at the beginning of the night, from which the attacking team gets their fire.

The fighting was at first largely ceremonious, with the attacking team trying frivolous things that wouldn't have a chance of working (think poking the shrine with a stick, and shooting some flaming arrows. More often than not, fire went out before it even reached the shrine, and if it didn't, the defending team simply dumped some of the copious snow that had settled on the shrine onto any fire.

After approximately two hours of this, things finally got serious. The defending team lit up a battering ram, and rammed it into the shrine (allowing time for the 42 year old men perched on top to safely escape of course). The shrine then lit up the night sky....

At our end, things were getting a bit hairy. 3 hours of heavy snow had soaked through the arms of my down jacket, Ash was almost as wet, but his jacket is slightly thicker than mine. We had put down our umbrellas earlier as everyone had been pushing past us and the crowd was bouncing around trying to get a better view. The umbrellas were too impractical to keep up.

The snow had also compressed to near ice, so everyone around us was slipping over (and sometimes taking people down with them!). Also, since the shrine is usually lit up at about 9:30, our bus back to Hakuba was scheduled to leave at 10:15. It was about 10:10 when the shrine finally went up in flames (but we weren't leaving before the finale).

So, as soon as the shrine was set on fire, we headed back to the bus. We were completely drenched, and our fingers and toes were starting to freeze... but we didn't get the worst of it. Some other people on the bus had fallen into the river at Nozawa!
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