Sai no Kami, a spectacular New Year’s festival

You probably know that New Year is one of the most important festivals in Japan, but have you heard of Sai no Kami? The details of the ceremonies vary, but the main feature is usually a bonfire, on which the previous year’s household shrine ornaments, Daruma dolls, and other votive items are burnt.

Daruma on the Sai no Kami bonfire in Omi.
Residents of Hayakawa assemble in the snow to watch their Sai no Kami bonfire.
In inland areas such as Nechi, the bonfires are made by tying bundles of rice straw to the branches of a tree. Rice straw burns very brightly and rapidly.

Each neighbourhood of Itoigawa has its own distinctive traditions, but the festivities are all held on or around January 15 (representing the New Year in the former lunar calendar). Watching the bright flames leap up towards the clear, starry winter sky, surrounded by snow-covered rice fields, is a particularly spectacular sight. In some neighbourhoods, people throw coins into the bonfire, and children (and some adults!) return the next day when the ashes are cold to hunt for them!

In many of the festivals, such as this Sai no Kami in Momokawa, the outcome (in this case, the direction in which the poles fall) is said to predict the next year’s harvest and catch.
Throwing money into the fire.
Treasure hunters!

The most famous festival of this kind in Itoigawa takes place in Omi, on the Japan Sea coast, on January 15 each year. The first part of the event is called Take no Karakai (Bamboo Teasing), and is a kind of tug of war between teams of men and of children, alternately, from two different areas of town. Instead of using a rope, they pull on two long bamboo poles! In the breaks between bouts, they circle the poles chanting traditional songs. The participants’ kabuki-style makeup makes them very photogenic, and even the local police get into the festival spirit!

Parading round the bamboo poles

After the tug of war is over, the participants (and spectators) are rewarded by scrambling for rice cakes tossed by the town officials from a window overhead. Finally, the bamboo poles are carried to the beach for the Sai no Kami bonfire, which takes place during the daytime in Omi.

The seaside is another atmospheric setting for a bonfire.

Another festival taking place at this season which you should definitely not miss is the Hadaka no Doage in Tozaki, also on the coast. The men of the town, dressed only in loincloths, take turns to toss one of their number high into the air inside a small temple. The official aim is to drive away bad luck from the person thus thrown; the unofficial goal is to have them hit the ceiling!

Some of the ceiling boards have deliberately been loosened!
The festival gets progressively rowdier as the participants drink more sake…

So if you are planning to visit Japan in mid-January, why not get in touch with us and arrange a visit to a unique festival or two?





Kenka Matsuri festival

Kenka Matsuri, one of Itoigawa’s biggest annual festivals, is underway today and tomorrow at one of the oldest shrines in town, just minutes from the station! The highlight of the festival is the clash between the omikoshi, or portable shrines, belonging to two rival neighbourhoods, Teramachi and Oshiage. The portable shrines are dragged and carried round and round a circuit, facing off at intervals like bulls locking horns in a battle of strength and wills. The climax is a race round the full circuit, with the crowds cheering on their neighbours and relatives from the stands set up specially for the occasion. It is said that if Teramachi, a farming neighbourhood, wins then the harvest will be good the next year, while if Oshiage, a fishing district, wins then there will be a good catch.

Clash of the portable shrines, Kenka Matsuri
Clash of the portable shrines, Kenka Matsuri

There is more to the festival than the battle of the shrines, however. Children and adults perform a variety of sacred dances, representing everything from old men to butterflies and demons. Several red lion-dogs chase children and adults round the grounds, trying to bite their heads; but no-one runs away too fast, because having your head “bitten” is thought to make you clever! The elementary school children have the day off school for the festival, and stalls selling fish-shaped pancakes, fried noodles, or chocolate-covered bananas do a brisk trade.

The lion-dog's bark is worse than his bite!
The lion-dog’s bark is worse than his bite!

Kenka Matsuri is always held on 10 and 11 April, regardless of the day of the week. If you are planning to visit Itoigawa at that season, why not come along and find out what all the fuss is about?

Butterfly dancers
Butterfly dancers