Nozawa Onsen's Dosojin Matsuri Fire Festival
Every January 15th, the village of Nozawa Onsen (located in Nagano Prefecture) holds a massive fire festival called the Dosojin Matsuri. The festival actually begins on January 13th when the trees that are used during the main even are brought down the mountain (and are cutdown a few months before that), but most of the action takes place on the evening of January 15th.
Participating in the event is limited to locals as it is an important traditional festival. During the festival, men who are 25- and 42-years-old attempt to protect the Shaden (the shrine they build with the trees brought down the mountain) from being burnt by the villagers. Spoiler alert – the Shaden is always burnt (and actually will smolder through the night), but the battle to protect it is an amazing event to witness.
Every year during the Dosojin Matsuri Nozawa Onsen is crowded, but it has a lively and joyful atmosphere. Mid-January the snow is usually starting to really build up on the mountain. Even with the crowds in town for the festival, the mountain is large enough that skiing conditions are usually pretty good. If you time it right, you can watch the trees being brought down on the 13th. Just head over to the Hikage Gondola side of the resort. The trees are brought down just above the kids’ park. The men bringing down the trees are followed by men dragging sleds bearing the ever-present sake that is consumed during the festival. The Hikage Gondola area has a few different restaurants, so the timing of the trees being brought down (midday) makes it the perfect way to finish up lunch.
After the trees are brought down to the area where the shaden is constructed, the men take the next two days to build the structure. It is worth heading down to the construction site the night of the 14th if you are in town. The local residents bring their New Year’s decorations to be burnt. There is also a large collection of daruma waiting to be burnt.
On the 15th as sunset starts to approach, busses from surrounding ski areas start to arrive. This swells the crowds to a massive number of people, so head down early if you can to get a good view of the shaden. Try to time it so that you are in front of the festival progression as they bring the burning torches through the village to the area where the festival is held. Try to move slightly to the side of the shaden if you want to be close to the action. Fireworks, chanting, and drumming signal the start of the main event.
The next morning the fire is usually still smoldering. You’ll be able to see the smoke from up on the slopes. An added bonus is usually the slopes are very quiet the next morning. You may actually have runs all to yourself as locals and visitors alike sleep in after an amazing night.
Starting the 2020-21 season, Nozawa Onsen is adding snow guns to the resort. The area already receives a good amount of snow every year and this will only add to that. Additionally, they have replaced the Nagasaka Gondola with a newer, faster model that will help you reach the top of the mountain that much quicker. If you like off-piste skiing or snowboarding, in the Yamabiko area of Nozawa Onsen you can go off-piste.
Tips for attending the Dosojin Matsuri (canceled for 2021):
Book early. I usually stay with Nozawa Holidays and they start filling up more than a year out. That’s not to say you can’t get a booking last minute, but that it can be more difficult (especially if you are in a larger group).
Don’t wear your nice jacket or coat to the Dosojin Matsuri. The sparks from the bonfire, torches, and burning shaden basically guarantee your outer layers will get damaged. I also usually wear a knit cap as I don’t feel like getting sparks in my hair! Being near the fire does get warm, so layers can be useful. If you bring a camera, make sure your battery is charged (remember that cold temperatures can run down the battery) and you have lots of room on your memory card.
Try not to push and always be respectful of the locals. Let them get closer to the shaden. Remember this is an important annual event and you are lucky to be there as a spectator. Despite all the alcohol that is being served, try not to get drunk. You want to be able to hit the practically empty slopes the next morning!
How To Get To Nozawa Onsen:
The easiest and most stress-free way to reach Nozawa Onsen is via the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Kanazawa (the Hakutaka line) to Iiyama which takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes. After arriving at JR Iiyama station, take the Nozawa Onsen Liner bus (¥600/adult ¥300/6-12 years old at time of writing) to Nozawa Onsen. It only takes about 25 minutes by bus from the station to the Nozawa terminal. Once in Nozawa Onsen, it is a compact enough ski town that you can walk just about anywhere in the village.