The Dosojin Fire Festival is a little strange for Westerners to behold. It’s half WWE and half arsonist convention, buoyed by a bunch of booze. As you’d expect, the spectacle is explosive.
This annual winter romp is a ceremonial competition that pits two groups against one another: a 25 year-old group and a 42 year-old group.
The Japanese festival, held in Nozawa Onsen, attracts a lot of people. It gets started when the booze gets flowing. Sake-men stumble around with canisters of warm nectar, feeling powerful and generous and necessary. By the time a bonfire is lit, most participants and spectators are very intoxicated.
The bonfire acts as a base camp for the 42 year-old middlers. A raised altar of dried pine branches is the youngsters’ base; they huddle around it and form a human wall. Then the fun begins: the shini (42 year-olds) light big bundles of reeds on fire, and race toward the altar like linemen rushing a quarterback. They try to hit the base of the altar with their burning bundles. The youngsters try to defend it with little green saplings and their innocent faces.
The festival turns out to be an initiation of sorts. The youngsters, now at the precipice of adulthood, are introduced to a new world.
The ceremony lasts for some time. After each fiery onslaught, the groups rest. The youngsters, who are weary and bleeding and perhaps a bit scorched, tend to drink. The middlers, who are drunk, tend to their drinking. One observer remarked:
As the fighting intensified, it was more fun to visit with friends than to watch the 25 year olds repeatedly get thrashed.
As another observer recalls,
…[the youngsters’] faces were blackened with soot and burning reed-ash landed and glowed in their hair; after an hour of defending the shrine, they began to look exhausted.
It can be difficult to watch the thrashing. It’s tempting to excuse it by noting that a) the youngsters will only experience the thrashing that one year they are 25; and b) in about 20 years, the tables will be turned, so to speak. Still, the fire ceremony is mainly about drinking sake in the freezing cold and the symbolic renewal of life. After lots of exertion, the shini declare an obligatory victory over the youngsters, who step away from the altar. Burning logs are rolled under the wooden base of the altar until the altar starts burning. This fire is an offering to Dosojin, or Shinto deities. The festival dies so that a new caste of warriors can help bring drunken merriment to Nozawa Onsen again the next year.