• Paul

Oami Fire Ceremony

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

The Oami Fire Ceremony (大網火祭り) is one of the most fascinating annual events held here in the village of Otari. Taking place each year on the second Saturday in February, this oxymoronic clash of fire and ice, gods and demons, violent screams and peaceful prayers is a true spectacle to behold.

Men wearing only loincloths, messengers of the gods yet dressed as "demons", dance wildly around the burning fire to placate the god of Mt. Amakazari and ensure a bountiful harvest even more plentiful than the previous year.

The small, rural settlement of Oami rests on the very outer edge of both the village of Otari and the prefecture of Nagano. The mountainous geography here has served to isolate the area for centuries, ensuring the preservation of unique, rich and unspoiled cultural traditions and various forms of craftmanship. 


Life here is still also much as it was in older times, with wooden houses built more than a hundred years ago, clusters of hand-carved stone statues and countless rice paddies being the dominant fixtures of the landscape. The bonds of community among the handful of residents are strong, and very few tasks are performed without the help and encouragement of neighbors. In fact, this area is officially recognized by the Japanese government as a 豪雪地帯, or "heavily snowed area" - with as much as 10 meters of snow falling between December and April, and surviving here during the winter months would be hard, if not impossible, without such communal cooperation.


It is here that this vibrant cultural event takes place at the turning of the seasons, as the harsh winter with its short days, numbing cold and crushing snows gradually begins to give way to the long-awaited rebirth and rejuvenation brought on by the increasing daylight and warming temperatures of spring.


The festival begins with a procession of both the torch-wielding players in this dramatic scene, and the cold, but eager public leaving together from the community centre, slowly snaking through the narrow streets and arriving at an unassuming field of snow several minutes later. The dozens of men dressed only in handmade straw cloaks and traditional loincloths are village locals who have volunteered to battle the brutal cold for the privilege of participating in this time-honored ceremony. Hoisted on their shoulders as they make their way to the ceremonial grounds is a single young woman, a maiden of the shinto shrine, who will later perform the central role at the climax of the ceremony.


Upon arriving to the grounds, visitors are handed cups of fresh homemade "Amazake", a warm, sweet drink made from fermented rice, with just enough time to drink before the elaborate spectacle unfolds before them. The momentum slowly builds throughout, as silent prayers and symbolic ceremonies meant to appease the god of Mt. Amakazari and guarantee a rich and plentiful harvest are followed by a mesmerising taiko drumming session that itself starts slow, gains intensity and reaches a fever-pitch, before a sudden return to silence.


The intensity peaks as the beautiful maiden enters the scene, silently twirling her torch and gliding gracefully across the snow to call down the presence of the gods, before collapsing violently to the ground. What follows is the lighting of the bonfire, at which point a rabid dance of the howling "demons" erupts in chaos and continues unbroken around the flames until the last embers and fading voices have carried the prayers of the people high into the heavens.


Mark your calendars for Saturday, February 8th, 2020 and join us for the next Oami Fire Ceremony.


Paul



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