Over in Akita Prefecture, it’s better to feed your demons with rice cakes than fight them.
- Feb. 7, to Feb. 9, 2020
- 6 p.m. to about 9 p.m.
The Legend of the Namahage
In Japanese folklore, namahage are a troll type of oni (demon) with blue or red skin. During the new year, they get their kicks by terrorizing villages and carrying off young brides. The only way to appease them and send them on their merry way is by giving them mochi.
Children burst into tears as the demons snatch them up, warning them not to be naughty or lazy.
Despite being total A-holes, they’re actually well-meaning A-holes. Namahage are messengers from the gods sent to scold us all into being good little boys and girls. Like most legends of trolls and boogeymen, it’s all just a lesson to teach kids—and also scare the holy crap out of them.
Nowadays, parents in Akita use the namahage legend to full effect, asking friends and relatives to wear frightening costumes around New Year’s Eve and make house calls to instill lessons in (i.e., traumatize) their children. Supposedly, even children hiding in the closet are dragged out kicking and screaming. Maybe next time they’ll think twice about refusing to eat those veggies that mom made.
Night of the Demon
Unfortunately for children in Akita, a visit once a year isn’t enough. Every second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in February, Oga City celebrates the Namahage Sedo Festival by lighting a great bonfire near Shinzan Shrine and summoning namahage from the mountains. The festival is a combination of the New Year’s namahage event and the Shinto Sedo festival in early January.
It includes Shinto ceremonies unique to Oga, and powerful dance and taiko drum performances by the namahage themselves. The lucky few selected to become namahage for the evening receive legendary oni masks said to contain the spirit of the gods.
Hungry for more demons?
Children burst into tears as the demons snatch them up, warning them not to be naughty or lazy. The joke might be lost on you if you don’t speak the language, but Japanese parents find it hysterical.
It takes mochi roasted over the bonfire by a Shinto priest to make the namahage leave. These aren’t your grandmother’s mochi though. They’re divine mochi, and the namahage make a big show out of trying desperately to get them. After finally having their rice cakes, they creep back up the mountain and disappear into the night until next year. You’d better have some mochi ready.
Find more lively celebrations in Japan in our Japanese festivals section.