Last saturday as i mentioned, was the Nozawa Village Fire festival.
A little background on festivals in japan. Festivals are the only times when this otherwise staid and calm culture really just freaks out. Festivals are a chance for the participants, whomever they may be, usually young men, to get totally ripped with their buddies and go do something stupid while wearing ridiculous outfits. The one we saw last spring in which men ride logs down dirt embankments was one example. Another example is the festival where they fly giant kites which sometimes kill people upon crashing. The Fire festival is the latest and by far the most outrageous disregard to safety and common sense that i've ever been witness to.
This particular festival is based around two traditions: First is that of burning your newyears decorations on the 15th of January, the second is on the idea that the ages of 25 and 42 are particularly bad luck years for men here. The synthesis of these two beliefs results in the following procedure.
The townspeople of Nozawa Village drag a bunch of brush and trees down from the mountains sometime in the fall and let it get good and dry. Then about the 13th of January they prepare the shrine which looks something like a giant ornamental birds nest reaching about 40 feet high. On the 15th of January the 25 year olds and the 42 year olds get pretty lit on sake and light a large bonfire at the edge of the arena surrounding the shrine. At this point the 25 year olds and the 42 year olds gather around the shrine and chant and get ready with the old guys on top of the bird nest platform. The next stage is where it gets really interesting. Village notables as well as some young children light reed torches on the bonfire and march towards the large shrine in a ceremonial effort to set the thing on fire. The younger set of unlucky men, armed with pine branches and nerves steeled with alchohol wait for these dignitaries to try to light their shrine and then calmly swat the flames out. After about 2o or so minutes of this the shit hits the fan and groups of drunken village men of all ages join the fight. They take up the torches that the old guys pitch down from the roof, run to the bonfire and lighting them, head back for the shrine to do battle. These guys are for real, they stage ambushes, rushes and full on frontal assaults with their burning torches. I saw guys whipped in the face with bundles of these flaming reeds. Time and time again the stupid drunks attacked eachother. While the supposed goal of the attackers was to destroy the shrine, it seemed more like the attackers were trying to destroy the faces and hair-dos of the defenders. It was not unusual for glowing embers to sputter out on the hair and flesh of the unlucky 25-ers. Thank god that i'm not from Nozawa, as this would be my year!