Noboribetsu Demon Fireworks Festival, Oni-hanabi
Summer in Japan means that ghosts and spirits are out and active. If you’re looking for demons, the best place to visit is Hokkaido’s Noboribetsu Onsen at the aptly named Hell Valley, or Jigokudani. One of the unique festivals of the area is the Demon Fireworks Festival, known as the Oni-Hanabi in Japanese. Every summer from early June to the end of July, Noboribetsu holds a special festival to celebrate the demons living in the area.
Though their name implies evil, these demons are known more as guardians and friendly deities who protect the area. Every summer, they come to Jigokudani to pray for the happiness of their inhabitants. Legend has it that these demons also carry away the evil that haunts the area, leaving in place prosperity instead. At least, according to the Noboribetsu Tourism Office.
For those who don’t know, Noboribetsu is the premiere onsen spa town in Hokkaido and is very popular among Japanese and foreign tourists. As with all onsens, the hot springs have relaxing and healing qualities that attract all types of visitors. Keep in mind, though, that this is still an active volcanic area so be safe and be careful not to get burned from all the heat.
The Oni-hanabi is a small event meant to appreciate the life-giving forces of the geothermal qualities of the area. Essentially, the concept is that demons, or the Yukijin, walk down to earth to celebrate the people living in Jigokudani. These demons hold cannons containing powerful fireworks that they shoot up into the dark sky. These cannons represent the volcanic eruptions that have provided its blessings among the people.
The fireworks show itself is about fifteen minutes and is held at night. Smoke blankets the air and the smell of sulfur fills your nose. A cymbal breaks the silence and the added sound effect of the wind blowing signals the appearance of the demons.
Ten demons dressed in blue and red happi make a slow procession down the stairs to a rhythm of drum beats. Some of the demons carry drums while the others hold torches high up in the air. The demons make their way to a stage. Four of the demons do a hop, step, dance to a different rhythm while the other demons continue to beat on the drums. The other two hold branches in their hands. Once the dance ends, the branches are waved over an offering. It reminds me of one of the rituals Shinto priests make at a shrine.
After the dance, six of the demons go back up the stairs. One of them, the demon leader, then points to an individual demon who then blasts their firework cannon up in the air, one by one. The lights shoot up into the dark for a few minutes. A faster drum rhythm beats, adding to the excitement in the air. The whole event finally culminates when all of the demons light up their cannons in one synchronized motion.
Noboribetsu is about two hours drive from Sapporo on the highway. It is also accessible by bus and JR Train. The fireworks are only held on Thursdays and Fridays starting around 8:30 pm. It’s held at the Hell Valley Observatory, which is right at the entrance to the pathways leading into the valley itself. The event is free so try to get there early as you can to get the best views of the show. Also, the event might be canceled due to rain or bad weather. The website will announce any cancelations, so make sure you check it before going.
If you miss the Fireworks Festival, it’s still worth a visit at night. In conjunction with the festival but all throughout the year, the pathways to the craters and the valley are illuminated after dark. If you can’t make it out on a Thursday or Friday to see the demons, you’ll still be able to feel the otherworldly nature of walking through "hell."