This past Wednesday night, I was was smashed in the head with fire as I clung to a rope with all of my might, I sang karaoke until the early hours of the morning with a group of friends from around the world (while wearing a horrendous wig and shaking an illuminated tambourine), and then snuck into an onsen before passing out in an apartment filled with foreigners fast asleep on Japanese mats.
This is my Japanese life.
I convinced my boss to let me leave work a bit early so I could rush to the train station. The last train I had to catch was twenty minutes after my working day ended. If I didn't make this train, I couldn't make the bus that would drop me off at the festival. Taking into consideration my past luck with trains (I always end up on the wrong one, or miss the right one), I hoped that leaving even twenty minutes early, giving myself almost an hour head start, would be safe enough.
By the time I got to the station, after making a quick stop at the convenie, the friend I was meeting was already there. She greeted me with a giant smile, pulled the ipod headphones out of her ears, and we rushed to buy our tickets. Miraculously, we worked through the confusion of using my basic Japanese, and somehow ended up on the right train before it departed. We both found open seats opposite one another, each squished up against Japanese boys (mine, the fashionable type that could pass for a host boy, with his teased, slightly lightened hair, ultra-metro outfit, and carefully manicured eyebrows, and hers with a Nintendo DS inches from his face and unblinking eyes.)
As the train headed North, with each stop at countryside stations, passengers filed out the electric doors, until there was enough room to sit next to one another. She quickly grabbed the vacant seat next to me, we opened our beers and split a Strong Zero (the equivalent of a Four Loko, but with less sugar), and laughed about our day at the preschool and how the night would unfold.
After a two-hour journey, we arrived in Nozawa, our bodies warm from the train and from the buzz of several drinks. We transferred to a bus, which then dropped us off in the village, where we were greeted with crowded streets of visitors and residents, all making their way to the main event, while stopping to pick up paper cups of sake being dispensed by locals businesses.
As we approached the field where the burning ritual, The Dosojin Fire Festival, would take place, the density of the crowd quickly thickened, and making our way to the front was like pushing through a sea of bodies. Packed tightly side by side, were Japanese locals of all ages, and tourists from all over the world who had come to see this amazing event. Also pushing their way through the crowd were people carrying paper lanterns above their heads, which signaled that they were the suppliers of even more free sake. With an endless supply of, “Sumimasen, Gomene, and Excuses Me’s,” we made our way to the very front, and as the fire warriors arrived, the sea was instantly parted, leaving us up against a rope. The ropes were no thicker than my pinky finger, and were tied in a way to create an isle that held back the pulsing crowd behind me. One of my friends, an experienced veteran of the festival, warned me not to let go of the rope, no matter what happened. “As soon as you let go, the crowd will swallow you, and you’ll never see the front again,” she told me with a dead serious look on her face. Sadly, I would discovered how true this was, when my fingers could no longer bear the burn that was created from gripping it so tightly.
The reason we had pushed our way to the front, was because in the center of this icy snow covered field, stood a giant structure that was some type of hybrid between a bird nest and a tree house. From here on, this structure will be referred to as the Sacrifice. Around the base of the Sacrifice, were a large group of twenty-five year old men who resided in the village, who all carried weapons of defense against the fire warriors; lush green tree branches. They wore fire protectant jump suits and danced around and looked a bit nervous as they awaited the attack, this being their first year to defend the structure. Above them, nested in the Sacrifice, were a group about half the size as the men below, composed of villagers who were forty-two years old. Drunkenly, they swayed from side to side, singing Japanese songs and making wide gestures as they clapped their hands, some hanging around the drunken friend beside him for support. It was obvious they’d done this before. The fear that glowed in the eyes of the boys below was smothered, and was replaced by an incredibly boozed up glaze. From what I gathered, it was the duty of the boys below to protect the Sacrifice from the warriors, and to prevent it from catching fire, while the elder men were on it. The whole event was some soft of coming of age, right of passage act for the males of the village, as females have been excluded from participating in the firefight.
Naturally, the Sacrifice had been constructed of only the most flammable materials, which put the victory of the battle instantly on the side of the warriors. It stood about twenty feet tall, and was built of layers of wooden posts, and bundles of dried sticks tied together with ropes. The objective was for the warriors to attack it repeatedly, beating it with fire, until the whole structure ignited, and the protectors would be forced to abandon it. The ambush would last about two and a half hours, until there was nothing left of the Sacrifice, just a glowing disaster of purple, white and orange flames.
The attack began with lighting a dried tree on fire, at the opposite end of the crowd from the Sacrifice. The isle that had been created led from the Sacrifice to the source of fire, with the crowd spilt on both sides. The ambush began with child warriors, and I mean, like, really young child warriors. Some of the children, holding sticks of fire, were the same size as those in my preschool class, and their parents, who most likely, had had a fair amount of the free sake, were carrying them. I tried not to question what type of person allows their tiny kid to attack others with fire, and rather gripped the rope and enjoyed the ceremony. As the first wave of warriors surged through the isle, they approached the Sacrifice and beat it repeatedly while the protectors swatted out their flames. None of them did much damage, and after twenty minutes or so the next wave of warriors approached.
The next group was quite a bit older, and they repeated the process with a little more luck than the babies had found. When they finished their attack, they were replaced by an even older group of men, who were the most experienced of the warriors. With massive bundles of sticks burning at one end, they rushed the Sacrifice, attacking it and those around it. These men had no mercy as they violently attacked the protectors and the Sacrifice, and as they ran down the isle they also swung at the crowd, singeing peoples’ hair and leaving burning holes in their clothing. I pulled my beanie down over my hair just in time, as a flaming stick was swung in my direction, grazing my head and pushing my beanie off. Had I not had my hat on, I might not be so fortunate to have hair on my head.
The entire festival became complete insanity, and the crowd was becoming as wild as the participants. The safetymen and fire fighters screamed Japanese warnings and directions back at the sea of people, my only understanding of what they were shouting being, “stand back!” Their warnings were lost on a good portion of the crowd, as many of those attending were belligerent foreigners, who ignored the sounds that the men made, just adding to the noise of the night. As the people in the crowd pushed forward I couldn’t help being reminded of punk shows I attended as a teenager, and the energy and force of a wild mosh pit. The attacks continued, and I couldn't believe my eyes. Japan is a society notorious for rules, and especially those that enforce safety, yet here were incredibly drunk men, with zero regard for lighting others on fire, running around like mad men. It was a dizzying adrenaline rush, and I can only imagine how those actually participating felt.
As the crowd pushed and pushed, I tried to keep my grip on the rope, but eventually it was enough and I was forced to release my stiff frozen white fingers. In an instant I was eaten alive and pulled to the back as people pushed to fill my spot. I found myself shoved up against a group of Australians who I was forced to become instant friends with, as one of them and myself found ourselves pressed chest to chest together, unable to separate. It was the most intimate introduction I’ve ever had with a complete stranger.
When the sacrifice did finally ignite, the men at the bottom scattered, and the men above rushed down a ladder on the backside. It was only minutes until the entire structure had been swallowed in smoke and flames, as it came crashing down into the biggest bonfire I have ever witnessed. It was at this point I found relief in being farther away, as the heat seared my skin in the frozen night, and fire balls came crashing down on our heads from above.
After the festival, the streets were filled with Japanese men with burn marks on their faces, and skin covered in ash and dirt. Some had burned hair and others had blisters on their skin. The festival was all people could talk about for the rest of the night and the following day, as they continued to fill their bodies with beer, and I kept coming back to the same questions. Dear Japan, where do you get the idea to create events such as this? Are the Japanese people out of their fucking minds? For how normal and tame and orderly society functions during daily life, how do you end up with a festival that is based on drinking as much as you possibly can, and they attacking others with fire?
Only here. Only in Japan.
When we were finally able to part with the mesmerizing glow of the bon fire, we headed to a bar called Heaven, where the night became even more ridiculous. We had about two hours of beer consumption before our private karaoke room opened at midnight. We began with a group size of about ten, and somehow managed to have at least half the bar in the room with us at one point in the night. With the help of props such as a Viking helmet, bunny ears, tambourines, bow ties, and hideous dreaded wigs, we sang our way into the night with ballads like, “The Thong Song.”
Sometime in the night, somewhere along the hours of where you no longer can keep track of time, everyone departed from the karaoke bar, and I ventured into the snowy night with a Japanese friend. As we stepped out from the warm protection of Heaven, giant chunks of snow fell from the dark world above, and we laid on our backs in the street, catching snow flakes in our open mouths. To warm our frozen bodies, we snuck into an onsen and sat beside boiling water that was too hot to even sink into. In our broken English and Japanese we shared stories and used ridiculous gestures to explain what we wanted to communicate, not caring how much was lost in our basic translations.
Before the sun rose, I made it back to my final a destination, where I was greeted by a warm house, with a floor covered in the bodies of sleeping friends. I carefully stepped over the ambiguous lumps underneath layers of covers, and found an empty bed that someone had been considerate enough to prepare for me. I buried under the blankets and didn't leave bed until after lunch the following day.
This is my life in Japan, and I love it.
(All photo credit goes to Kim Bah Lee, who provided the beautiful photographs of the festival)