Sendai Dontosai Festival

If you’re looking for a unique way to celebrate New Year’s, come to Japan. No, we’re not talking about huge fireworks or a pool party. That’s too mainstream for Japan. Indeed, Japan doesn’t celebrate New years with huge festivities. Japanese welcome the New Year by visiting a shrine (hatsumōde (初詣) which literally means 1st visit to the temple for the year) followed by a big discount-sale called ‘hatsu-uri’ (which means 1st sales by retailers in the New Year).
 
Osaki Hachimangu Shrine, main entrance.
 
But thats not all! The last event for the New Year’s celebration series in Tohoku area will is held every year on the 14th of January: Dontosai festival!
 
Dontosai festival – also known as matsutaki matsuri amongst locals – is one of the oldest festivals in Miyagi Prefecture. The most famous Dontosai Festival is held at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine, first held some 300 years ago.  It is not hard to find Osaki Hachimangu Shrine, just 20 minutes by bus from Sendai station you will spot a big red torii (shrine gate) which is the main entrance to the shrine complex. The roadside around the shrine is decorated with lanterns with sponsor names written on them (either a company/brand or you can even put your own name on one). People join a long queue near the entrance, lots of them bring their new years decorations, daruma, or basically anything that resembles the old year or what you want to move on from. They will light a HUGE bonfire to resemble the god of fire and burn their stuff as an offering to the god.
 
What a huge bonfire! Photo credit: Masatomo Horie (DP Kikaku)
 
The rituals to light the fire start at around 4 pm when the main priest will say a prayer and set the pile alight. Legends say that if you throw your stuff from the past into the fire it will get rid of the last years bad luck and bring you good luck for the whole next year.
 

 

The massive bonfire and a pile of stuff.
 
Don’t worry, the bonfire is not the only thing on offer. At the same time you can see the ‘Hadaka-mairi’. Groups of dauntless pilgrims will perform some rituals to cleanse their spirit by walking half naked. While covered only by a white loincloth, they hold a lantern in one hand, and a bell in the other. They climb up the stairs to the main shrine to be blessed and purified by the main priest and get a sip of sake (rice wine). After that, they will come down to the bonfire and burn the straw belt and sandals they wore there. The idea is to purify your soul by stripping off the evil spirit and bad luck. This year it was -3°C and even lightly snowing. I don’t know how they could manage the cold! Well, I did hear them screaming here and there. The rhythmic ringing of the bells as they’re walking and encircling the bonfire creates a mystical atmosphere.
 
 
Hadaka-mairi participants. Looks so cold to me!
 
The event can be confirmed historically as taking place since the late Edo period in 1849. While the appearance of a woman in this half-naked event was also confirmed in 1850. The event more widely known as “Dontosai Festival” officially started in 1907, although the shrine still officially calls it ‘matsutaki matsuri’.
 
Lots of people join in this event; groups from companies, clubs, universities, hospitals, etc. I bumped into groups from my university (Tohoku Univeristy) there. Even though they looked like they were about to get frostbite, they were enjoying it for sure. Just look at how happy my friends were when they joined the event. Well, these were taken before the bloody cold rituals though. LOL 😉
 

Friends and colleagues joining the hadaka-mairi

 
As for me, I spent most of the time never drifting too far from the food stalls! You don’t need to worry about starving at any festival in Japan. It is the best time to try Japanese street food. The prices vary from 200-500 JPY (2-5 USD). From takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, gyutan, sweets, PPAP candy…you name it and you will find it there. Itadakimasu!!
 
The food stalls. Let’s dig in!!
 
 

 

14th January
Free entrance; 200-500 JPY for food
Osaki Hachiman Shrine, 4 Chome-6-1 Hachiman, Aoba-ku, Sendai-shi, Miyagi-ken 980-0871
Note: There will be traffic regulation from 5pm, you can only go there by public bus/Sendai loople bus during the traffic regulation time
 

– Annisa (Indonesia)
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Annisa Noorhidayati

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