Where Fire Meets Ice: Nozawa, Japan
Welcome to Nozawa (pop 4,000), home to a 300-year old winter tradition
They say Japan’s future as a nation is doomed; its aging population is sailing the country into oblivion, as surely as the Titanic. In 20 years, about 900 villages across Japan are heading for ‘local extinction’, i.e. turning into ghost towns. Government efforts to stave off this doomsday scenario do not seem to be working.
A village in the Nagano prefecture of Japan, like many of its peers in rural Japan, looks set to suffer the same fate. Despite hosting a Winter Olympics, it’s not insulated from inevitable downturn given myriads of more popular ski resorts in Japan. However, it has an ally in a medieval practice which could ensure its future for many years to come.
As our bus rolled into the quaint village on a January evening, we were greeted by buildings jostling for space on narrow streets, thick slab of snow resting on rooftops. Welcome to Nozawa (population 4,000), a magnet for skiers the world over, gathered here for the powder and a 300-year old tradition: the Nozawa Fire Festival.
Ancient hotspring village amidst ski slopes
Nozawa is an ancient hot-spring village dating back to the 8th century, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. I awoke eye level with the floor, peeled off the comforter and wrapped myself in a yukata (kimono-style Japanese garment). We were staying at a traditional ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), one of many dotting the village; beds are futons on tatami floor. First thing first, I rushed to the window; growing up in a tropical country, the winter landscape is a novelty, a must-see. In the darkness of the night, yellow lights shining through windows were inviting—a stark contrast to freezing white canvas outlined by wooden houses of irregular shapes. Icicles had formed, hanging from the eaves, like decorations made of crystal.
After a hearty breakfast which included porridge and seaweed, we set off to get our skis fitted at a halfway station on a mountain. Hat over my ears and hands dug deep in my fleece, we weaved our way through narrow lanes. Snow piled up on rooftops looked precarious, at one point falling under its own weight, nearly hitting the person in front of me. From then on, everyone looked up now and again, ready to dodge falling clumps of snow.
Villagers at work while skiers play
As skiers were making plans to conquer the pistes, locals were busy making a wooden shrine the size of a hut. They had been at it all autumn, beginning from the cutting of trees to identifying men ages 25 and 42 (considered unlucky ages, hence candidates for purification rites). What began as an invocation for good harvest, health and fortune had since been expanded to include a good ski season as well, It pleased me that the gods were interested in us having a good time. Locals and skiers were living parallel lives but would soon rendezvous at the highlight of the fire festival: setting a wooden shrine ablaze as an offering to the gods.
As we ventured out of our cosy ryokan, there was total silence. We were on our way to ground zero, where an epic battle would ensue, culminating in a blaze which could be seen for miles. People were drawn from all directions like worker ants to their queen. We looked for a gap through the crowd as we squeezed to the front, just in time for the customary sake (Japanese rice wine) being handed out to prime us for actions to come. It took a hundred villagers to build the shrine but lesser to burn it down.
Villagers were going at each other so ferociously that I felt I was caught in a medieval battle.
The festival had begun with dozens of villagers lit torches made out of branches and marched towards the shrine “guarded" by the 25- and 42-year-olds. Given this was a celebration, or so I thought, I was not prepared for the ferocity of the mock battle which followed. Those playing the role of rampaging villagers bent on burning down the shrine and those protecting it were going at each other so aggressively that I feared for their safety. No doubt the free-flowing sake (Japanese rice wine) played a part as villagers ambushed the shrine, often striking those getting in their way. I had never seen anything like it; festivals were supposed to be fun but this was as if I was caught in a medieval battle.
The shrine eventually succumbed to the flames as it must, a towering inferno visible for miles. When I reached my ryokan, I looked out and could see the flickering flame glowing in the dead of night. I stood watching for awhile; I'd always associated naked fire with danger, but on that icy night, it was mesmerizing, magical.
Nozawa wasn't just a Japanese village where I’d gone skiing. It was where fire met ice, where the ancient blended with the present; a calling card irresistible to many for centuries to come.
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© 2019 CC Leau