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Festival starring UNESCO-designated, devilish 'Namahage' held in northern Japan

Namahage dance in front of a bonfire at the Namahage Sedo Festival in the city of Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Feb. 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Takano)
Namahage are seen marching down a mountain with torches at the Namahage Sedo Festival in the city of Oga, Akita Prefecture, on Feb. 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Takano)

OGA, Akita -- A festival featuring the demon-like "Namahage," a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, was held at a shrine in this northern Japan city between Feb. 12 and 14, though the devilish hijinks were toned down this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    The Namahage Sedo Festival started in 1964, blending the Namahage -- people dressed in oversized "oni" demon masks and wild costumes made of straw -- with the Shinto "Saitosai" ritual, which has been conducted at the city's Shinzan Shrine for over 900 years.

    On the night of Feb. 12, Namahage visited homes in the city as they would on Dec. 31, and then danced and drummed in front of a bonfire. The creatures also marched down the mountain in a torchlit procession and paraded around the shrine precincts.

    To prevent the spread of coronavirus infections, the dozens of demons' usual boisterous "invasion" of the festival was canceled, and their shouts were a little quieter than in a normal year. The number of visitors to the shrine festival was limited to 1,000 each day, and the standing observation area was eliminated.

    Akari Harada, 3, from the city of Akita, said, "(Namahage) have scary faces," but she seemed satisfied with the "interesting" Namahage drums. Her parents, Koei, 35, and Kumiko, 39, said, "It was a fantastic atmosphere. It was powerful to see up close."

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Takano and Marika Inomori, Akita Bureau)

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