"Namahage are the embodiment of the loneliness inherent in snowy lands. Raising a terrifying voice, they seek out and attack living things. If you cross paths with one, you should play dead. They regard the lazy as friends and are lulled into a false sense of security.
They say you should play dead if confronted by a Namahage, but it can be quite fearsome to hide in plain sight of an armed foe. A legend tells of a samurai that tried to banish the Namahage. He attacked its blade with a nearby brush while it was distracted. Without its weapon, it grew afraid and left, promising to reform."
-Okami (Nintendo Wii)
Once upon a time, I came across this creature in an excellent video game. And so, I decided to search for where it came from and find out more about it.
That somewhere is Akita prefecture: specifically the Oga peninsula, an hour north of Akita city by train.
Of all the cities I've visited in Japan thus far, Akita is the smallest and quietest. Perhaps this owes to its relatively isolated location, on the western (i.e. far) side of Tōhoku's central mountains with limited connectedness to Japan's urban centres. Its population is low – only slightly more than Guyana's – and it relies on farming, fishing and forestry, perhaps unappealing to those migrating out to the cities.
There are three things, I found, that Akita is famous for. First, the Kanto Matsuri: a summer festival held in early August where people balance bamboo poles with dozens of hanging lanterns, up and down the long, broad avenues. Aggravatingly I missed it by three days, and only the silence, cars and tumbleweed remained when I got there.
Second, rice. Lots of rice. Lots and lots of rice; and more rice. The name Akita itself means "autumn ricefield". Trundling through on local trains, one gets a sense of the scale of Akita's ricefields, stretching as far as the eye can see. And this has its benefits: this rice, called Akita komachi, is considered one of the most superior in Japan. The local delicacy, kiritanpo, is made from mashed and toasted cylinders of this rice and served in a variety of ways, such as this nabe preparation. Different regions of the prefecture have their own takes on it too, and it follows that Akita's sake is correspondingly splendid.
And third – inevitably – Namahage.
The tradition goes that every year, these people in large fearsome masks and straw capes go around barging and banging into people's houses in the Oga area. Admonishing laziness and idle behaviour, they roar at and frighten the children or attempt to seize them, carrying great wooden knives that symbolize the cutting out of laziness. Parents and relatives are then supposed to "protect" their kids, affirming that they all behave well, and placate the ogres with offerings of mochi and sake.
The ancient origins of Namahage are shrouded in mystery. A popular legend goes that they were oni (demons) from China who settled on local mountains, plundering the crops and harassing the local women. So the villagers challenged them, offering whatever the demons wanted if they could build a flight of 1000 stone steps to the top of nearby Mt. Shinzan by sunrise, but demanding they would have to leave if they failed. The demons accepted, and they almost succeeded: but with 999 steps completed, a villager crowed to imitate a rooster, and the demons panicked and fled, never returning again. This however is only one of a range of theories.
|"Another theory maintains that namahage was a band of foreigners brought ashore in a shipwreck."|
Wherever they came from, it is easy to place Namahage in a wider Japanese cultural context. The themes of familial hierarchy, filial piety and devoted social work ethic are embodied therein; though I would regard this with a scrutinizing eye, given the problems of the relationship between older and younger people in this world, especially the persecution of children. There is also an animistic Shinto resonance, with some associating Namahage with sacred kami (divine spirits) from the mountains. But this is first and foremost a local tradition of Oga, whose people every year create the masks and weave the costumes by hand, from local wood and rice-straw, and take joy in their unique tradition. All of Oga's districts even represent themselves with their own specific masks.
These photos come from the Namahage Museum, up near Mt. Shinzan in the mountains of Oga. Aside from displays about the history, meanings and varieties of Namahage, they offer a year-round chance to witness and experience the Namahage in action too.
This Namahage is different. Unlike others, this one only targets adults.
It will come bursting into your homes, as expected; but instead of terrifying the children, it hunts straight for the responsible heads of the families. "Are there any adults here abusive of their power?" it bellows. "Where is the troublemaker who started a war for no reason?" "The one who cuts benefits for unemployed and vulnerable people – where is he hiding?" "A sanctimonious one lives here who censors harmless material she doesn't like and makes hard-working artists miserable! Come out! Come out! You have lessons to learn!"
A good adult who has made mistakes will take fright, and promise to reconsider his or her ways. But many are arrogant, and will put up a fight to remain on their erroneous paths. In this case the Namahage gets serious, removing its mask to wield it as a shield for more balanced combat.
I came away contemplating a couple of questions I hadn't found answers for.
-Most Namahage seem to be male. Do women perform the role of Namahage too? Sincerely I hope that they do.
-What happens if a child resists the Namahage's admonitions, and makes a strong argument in response? Does the Namahage relent, or conduct an ethical debate with the child? Does it ever come to blows? And what happens if it does, and the child is victorious?
I also explored a bit up the slopes of Mount Shinzan, including the Shinzan Shrine from where the Namahage come down every winter amidst sacred fires, and hand out sticky rice cakes to ward off disasters.
One word of advice if you wish to travel to Oga: go by car, or rent one. I made the mistake of going only by train, and finding it car-oriented to the absolute with very limited public transport.
Namahage aside, I did get in some rain-affected exploration of Akita city. The large and pleasant Senshu Park occupies the high ground at the centre, where it was once the site of Kubota Castle, built by the Satake clan of daimyo (feudal lords) who ruled Akita Domain during the Edo period. The castle burnt down in a fire in 1880, but amidst the peaceful greenery are a number of little museums and remnants, offering a glimpse of Akita in those times. As for the Satake family, they came out reasonably well from the Boshin War when the struggle between the imperial supporters and Tokugawa loyalists came north, but were rearranged like all the other daimyo when the Meiji government centralized the domains into the modern prefecture system. In a sense though, they are still there: one of their descendents, the engineer Satake Norihisa, is the governor of Akita prefecture today.
Next: north to Hokkaido, to explore the distinct and special story of Japan's Siberian frontier.
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