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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

An Ancient, Modern Festival

 Every year, as I have mentioned, the Oni descend from the mountains to visit, sometimes fiercely, sometimes nicely, often threaten misbehaving children, are propitiated with food, drink, music and dance, perform themselves, and take themselves back to the mountains for another year, leaving promises of good fortune, or at least not afflicting the community with bad fortune. 

In Oga, near Akita in the the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, there is a famous annual festival that draws visitors from all over the country. The Namahage festival is held in mid-February. True to form, the Oni, played by beautifully costumed locals, come down from the mountains. They dance, and several incredibly talented members of the troupe play Taiko and gong in a rousing performance. They scare children, reminding me of the Seafair Pirates of Seattle as they work the crowd, and then, after being provided with food and drink, take themselves off to the mountains again for another year.

Hokusai, Setsubon

Setsubon, of course, is kind of a miniature home version of this festival, which is also sometimes played out in small communities with an annual house-to-house visit from the local Oni, in kind of a cross between Santa Claus and Trick-or-Treat.

But the Oga Nagahame is a big one! It's one of the biggest in the country and I would love to go to it sometime, freezing in the cold as the torch-bearing Oni come down the mountain.

Artist unknown, from Hepburn, 1886.

In this unusual COVID year, the Oga Namahage festival was still held, though it was closed to the public and only a limited number of invitations were issued to allow for sufficient space and masks were the rule for all, not just the Oni. But Japan, being Japan, expert in preserving its own culture while smoothly and skillfully adapting to anything and everything, extended an invitation to YouTuber John Daub, who made it possible for me to attend in the comfort of my Tokyo apartment. And so can you!

It looked like great fun. The Oni came down the mountain, "terrorized" the crowd and danced, with folk style moves reminiscent of Sumo wrestlers warming up. Some of them enacted a visit, on stage, to a home where they frightened, were fed, and ate, all per classic protocol. Then there was a wonderful Taiko performance.

Artist unknown

No shamisen, but the drums and the gong were fantastic! More dancing in the crowd, and then the Shrine's Chief Priest gave them all sesame cakes, for which the Oni, mostly very courteously but with a little bit of mischief, lined up to receive, and back up the mountain they went for another year.

As I try to show through the characters and stories in The Toki-girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, this is a modern manifstation of one of Japan's great strengths. Japan adapts and adopts, yet preserves and protects, remaining always, on the most essential and deepest levels, itself.

All images courtesy wikicommons.


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