Namahage Festival – The Descending Deity

What crosses your mind when you hear Akita Prefecture? Delicious rice (Akita Komachi)? Akita Bijin? Turns out Akita is also famous for its folklore; in particular Namahage. Namahage is a deity depicted as a demonlike being that has a long history. Oga Peninsula, located in Northwest from Akita, is the hometown of Namahage. Every year around February, a festival called Namahage Sedo Matsuri is held on Oga Peninsula to commemorate this deity. We set our goal to experience this festival and also discover the beauty of Akita City and Oga Peninsula.

Let the journey begin!

Our first destination is Akita city, the capital of Akita prefecture and the nearest city to Oga. As we arrived there, we were greeted by heavy snow, which is likely to occur during this period. The festival is held at night, so we had plenty of time to explore Akita before going to Oga. Before begin our exploration, we searched for some local cuisine near the station. Our attention was immediately caught by an authentic-looking shop that served Kiritanpo Nabe with Inaniwa Udon – double local cuisine from two different areas! Kiritanpo is a local dish of Akita made from pounded rice that’s shaped into a cylinder, and Inaniwa Udon is a type of udon originating from Yuzawa. This udon is thinner and smoother than the udon that you know.

Kiritanpo Nabe and Inaniwa Udon

The nabe comes with chicken and vegetables and kiritanpo is added later. The soup is sweet rather than salty – the combination of the kiritanpo and nabe is just right. For the udon, although it’s thin  turns out to have a very elastic and very smooth texture.

After such pleasuring meals, we headed to Senshu Park, a park in the city center, built on the former site of Kubota Castle. Senshu Park can be reach by foot about 15 minutes from Akita station. The snow hadn’t stopped, yet it did not stop us from walking down to the park. As we walked through the storm, all we could see is the city covered by thick snow.

The frozen lake near the park

The frozen lake near the park

The first spot we visited is the Omote Gate, which is the main gate to Kubota Castle. The gate is a two-storey wooden building, reconstructed in 2001. We continued to the next spot, the Iyataka Shrine, which is located not far from the gate. The shrine was covered by thick snow, but surprisingly some people still came to pray despite the weather. Our last destination in the park is the Osumiyagura Turret. This building served dually as an armory and watchtower. Built on the highest point of the park, you can see the view of the city from it. Alas, by the time we came, the watchtower was closed, thus we only could enjoy its splendor amongst the snow.

The Omote gate

Torii Gate of Iyataka Shrine

Main hall of Iyataka Shrine

The Osumiyagura Turret

The bronze statue of Yoshitaka Satake, the last feudal lord of Kubota Domain.

Satisfied with our visit to the park, we walked back to the station to continue our journey to Oga Peninsula! As we arrived at the station, in an unfortunate turn of events, due to the heavy snow, all trains heading to Oga were cancelled!! Shocked, we then headed to the bus terminal only to find more bad news that there were no buses heading to Oga either! Feeling devastated, we discussed what to do next. Luckily, the festival is held for three-straight days, so we decided to take a bet on the next day’s weather to get to Oga by train…


…Our new day began with more snow, although it wasn’t as heavy. Still optimistic, we went to the station, hoping for the train. We got worrying news that the train was delayed due to heavy snow, there’s still a chance that all trains will be cancelled. Trapped and out of ideas, all we could do was wait for the next train! Finally, around midday, the train for Oga came and we were ready to depart.

After arriving at Oga station, we were greeted by a couple of Namahage statues. There are two statue-couples, one inside the station and the other outside (playing with the snow, lol). There was still plenty of time before the festival, so we set our first destination to Nyuudosaki Cape (入道崎). The cape can be accessed by local bus connected with mini bus and take about one hour. Nyuudosaki Cape is a cape that faces the Sea of Japan with surrounded by reef. There’s also a lighthouse, a monument and shops around there.

We were greeted by strong cold wind blowing from the sea, rendering our face and hands numb. The cape is a good place to enjoy the nature of the sea, where you can relish the sound of waves and view the sunset (if the weather is clear, of course). You can even go down to climb the reef, but we didn’t due to heavy wind and big waves.

The monument I said earlier is a monument of the North Latitude of 40o. The monument consists of several rocks with a line of crevice aligned with the main monument. Satisfied with the scenery and photos taken, we headed to the shops nearby. These shops sell mainly seafood and local souvenirs. We bought a unique snack called namahage’s booger, which is a chocolate peanut ball!

Nyuudosaki Cape

The North Latitude 40º Monument

Namahage’s Booger

Pleased with Nyuudosaki Cape, we went back to the bus stop where the special bus to Shinzan Shrine was waiting. Arriving at the shrine’s parking area, we walked down the lantern-decorated path leading to the main building. The festival area is located between the main worship hall and the kagura hall, which is a large open area with a bonfire in the middle.

Namahage, although they may look like demons, are actually are deity with a good purpose – to admonish children who may be guilty of laziness or bad behavior. They are portrayed by young men wearing large masks, straw coats and waist-bands, holding wooden knives and pails, who go around visiting the houses at night, dancing along as they give out strange cries.
Namahage Sedo Festival is a combination of both Shinto ritual and traditional folklore. The festival begins with the sacred Shinto ritual of blessing using dance and music, ended with purification by stirring up boiling water from a cauldron with whisk.

Next, is the calling of Namahage spirits. Several young men disguised as Namahage were purified by a Shinto priest at the gate of the shrine’s stone stair. They receive the masks of the Namahage which contain the spirit of the God, then they become Namahage and return to the mountain.

Namahage’s Spirits Calling

Following the spirits call is the performance of Namage’s visit at the kagura hall. You can watch the New Year’s traditions of the Oga area where Namahage will visit houses of people to give them admonishment for being lazy.

After the visit performance is the Namahage dance followed by Namahage Taiko. This taiko is a folk tradition that incorporates both Namahage and Japanese drummers. They play big drums wishing for peace within the household and a good harvest.

 

Namahage Dance

Finally, the descending of Namahage from mountain. For me the this is the best part of the festival. The Namahage were carrying torches and marched from the mountain-top down to the bonfire area as they gave out their creepy cries while accompanied by a thrilling taiko performance. At the open area, they walked in circles around the Sedo fire and interacted with the visitors. The intense taiko play and Namahage’s cries broke the coldness and the silence of the night.

 

The descending Namahage

In the end, there is Sato-no Namahage and the distribution of Goma-mochi. Sato-no Namahage is when Namahages from different areas with different mask and interpretations come to the area and interact with the visitors. Some Namahage also distribute Goma-mochi, a mochi that’s roasted in the Sedo fire, which is believed to bring good health and good luck.

Sato-no Namahage, Namahages from various area

Goma-mochi

Feeling happy with our festival adventure, we headed back to Oga Station by the same special bus, thus ending our amazing journey to Oga Peninsula.


How to get there

Akita City is easily accessed by train, while Oga can be accessed by local JR train from Akita.

From Tokyo:

From Tokyo Station, take the Akita Shinkansen to Akita. The trip takes about 3 hours 50 minutes and the cost is vary depends on the season. From Akita station, take local JR train Oga line for Oga. The trip cost ¥760 one way and takes about 1 hour.

There’s a night bus departure from Shinjuku to Akita Station. The trip takes about 10 hours for varying cost, ¥5000 – 9000

From Sendai:

From Sendai Station, take the Akita Shinkansen to Akita. The trip takes about 2 hours 10 minutes and the cost is vary depends on the season. From Akita station, take local JR train Oga line for Oga.

From Sendai bus stop no. 40, take Akita high-speed bus for Akita Station. The trip takes about 3 hours for ¥4100.

Other useful link about the festival:

https://www.oganavi.com/sedo/en/

http://www.namahage-oga.akita.jp/english/index.html

For more great destinations in Tohoku, visit our homepage: gogotohoku.jp

Tohoku Ambassador Club

About Tohoku Ambassador Club

The Tohoku Ambassador Club consists of over 170 international exchange students from 27 different countries, all living and studying in Sendai City. As both local Tohoku residents and international travelers, we have all the insider knowledge and tips for discovering the amazing attractions of the Tohoku region! Follow us as we uncover your next Japan adventure, far from the crowds of Tokyo and Kyoto.

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