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Namahage UNESCO heritage listing offers chance to boost tourism in Akita Pref.

Three "Namahage" deities wearing gold and silver masks are wined and dined at a home in the Anzenji district of the city of Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Dec. 31, 2017. (Mainichi)

OGA, Akita -- Now Japanese folk characters including "Oga no Namahage" deities have been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, local residents here have high expectations that the popular horned gods will attract more tourists to this northwestern prefecture.

A group of Namahage characters were among eager spectators gathered at the Oga city office to watch online the live coverage of UNESCO's announcement to add 10 "Raiho-shin, ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes" from eight prefectures to the list on Nov. 29. When the decision became official, even the fierce-looking Namahage could not hide their excitement, commenting in the Akita dialect, "Egattana!" (It was good!)

Noboru Sugawara, 75, director of the Shinzan Namahage heritage association, said, "We have to organize events involving the entire Oga area that are worthy (of the honor). I hope more foreign tourists will visit here."

In the rite of visiting gods, men don masks and straw costumes to dress as Namahage and visit neighborhoods or houses on New Year's Eve. While the events are carried out in some 80 communities in the city of Oga, it is not easy for tourists to see Namahage during these performances as the deities walk around each town.

There are opportunities for tourists to see the gods in the city, such as the Namahage Sedo Festival in February where most of the deities gather, or at the Oga Shinzan museum in which visitors can experience the ritual. Yet the Oga Municipal Government has received inquiries if it's possible to see Namahage on New Year's Eve.

In response to such calls, the Oga Tourism Association managed to find four communities in the city that will accept tourists on New Year's Eve this year. The association organized two trips to start from JR Oga Station to experience playing the role of Namahage followed by a dinner consisting of seafood and other local ingredients. One tour offers a one-night stay costing 23,000 yen and the other is one-day trip for 18,000 yen. The tourism association began accepting reservations on Nov. 29, and the tours sold out in only five days with 15 people reserved for each event.

The earnings from the visitors will be given back to the four communities to ensure the events can continue. An Oga city official expressed hope that those tours will create more buzz about Namagae. "They will be an opportunity to learn the real face of the ritual," said the official.

Meanwhile, the preservation of the folk ritual must be ensured even when it is used as a tourist attraction. Yet doing so is no easy task in an area suffering from low birthrates and aging among residents, leaving few to carry on the tradition.

Sohei Amano, 61, who has detailed knowledge about the events in each town, stated, "I feel grateful about the addition (to the UNESCO list), but I'm also worried that using Namahage too much as a tourist attraction will cause the loss of its original character. We may need to create new rules for preservation."

(Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Akita Bureau)

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