Nozawaonsen is a village of about five thousand people about an hours drive from Nagano City. It is famed for its hot springs, which according to legend were discovered when an injured bear led a hunter to them, its skiing, and for hosting part of the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.
It is also famous for being the site of one of the greatest fire festivals in Japan, a frenetic, sake-fueled New Years celebration known as the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival, Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri.
The festival is meant to honor the dosojin, protective kami said to watch over roads and travelers. A specific dosojin is believed to protect Nozawa Onsen. It is a duel male-female being that promotes good harvests, fertility, and in recent years, a good ski season.
Preparation for the festival begins in October, when trees later used to construct a shrine in the center of town are felled. The shrine is built on January 13th. On the 15th, the most famous (and insane) part of the festival begins:the “fire-setting battle.”
Prior to the battle, participants get loaded up on sake. This process is helped along by men wandering among the crowd, pouring the potent rice wine from 1.8 liter bottles. As night falls and the crowd gets drunker, huge bonfires are lit not far from the shrine, which will be used in the battle to come.
Two sets of men take up their positions at the shrine. Twenty-five year old men line up at the bottom, holding onto ropes tied to the shrine in one hand and pine branches in the other. Forty-two year old men take up position on the nest like structure on the top of the shrine, armed with pine boughs and kindling. These are considered unlucky ages, and their participation in the ceremony is seen as a way to help dispel the bad luck and bring about good fortune.
These are opposed by other men in the village, who dip bundles of reeds in the bonfire to make torches. The torch-bearers full on charge the twenty-five year olds, whooping and swinging their torches, attempting to set the shrine on fire. The young men try to force back the horde, by pushing, shoving, and swatting out fires with pine boughs. Meanwhile, the older men on top the shrine hurl kindling and insults at the attackers.
This goes on for hours, with the attackers inching their bonfire ever closer. After about four hours or so, the older men declare victory and clamber down from the shrine. A flaming log is levered into the base, and everyone drinks sake while they watch the shrine go up in flames. Thus ends one of three great fire festivals of Japan, Dosojin Matsuri.