We were somewhere in the middle of the Nozawa Onsen fire festival at the edge of the wooden stage that villagers were ready to set on fire when the edibles kicked in.
I remember my friend Dean saying something like, “Dude we’re traveling back in time.” He’s gone mad, I thought. But then the same thing would also happen to me. My brain was not processing the time right. I’ve smoked powerful ganja before, but this shit was making us travel through time. Meanwhile, JD was in line holding big long bamboo glasses getting a refill of booze from the Sake station nearby. We must have drunk three gallons of sake between us.
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I was getting woozy and from all this madness. But a strange feeling came over me. A feeling that something was missing; Like losing something important. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake; something’s not right.
Then I realized.
Where’s Our Friend Kenny?
The Madness that is the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival
Amongst rowdy crowds of villagers and foreigners, we pushed our way through, trying retrace where we were, how we got there, why we’re there, who we are, in a drunken stupor.
The Nozawa fire festival takes places on 15 January every year. We came to Japan for a snowboarding trip. Lured by the promise of less crowd, catch epic Powder, and check out the Fire Festival.
The festival can be summed up like this: There are these dudes with flaming bales of straws, who are swinging it around like madmen hoping to catch an unfortunate fool’s eyebrows and setting it on fire. OK, it’s more than that, I researched it further and here’s what it entails. As with many insane traditions, it is based on superstition. To purify the unlucky ages 25 and 42, to pray for great marriage, to celebrate the birth of a first child; a shrine of flammable things such as wood, rice stalks, etc., are erected in a snowy field.
Grown Men Playing with Fire
The 25 and 42-year-old men are there to protect it from all the other men in the village trying to burn it all down. So you have all these villagers charging at each other with massive torches. The 25-year-old defenders are trying to fend them off while the 42-year-old from above the shrine are throwing much stuff to taunt the attackers.
That’s all fine and dandy. But factor in that these guys have loaded up on copious amounts of sake, and you have, what can only be surmised as, pandemonium. These guys were also clad in snow garments made of flammable rice stalks. It had all the recipes for disaster. There were ambulances nearby in case somebody goes up in flames. But it was so crowded that I don’t think they reach the hapless victim in time to save him.
We got in at the start of the parade, dodging flames from participants with flaming straws and pushing through mobs of drunk attendees. Not until midway into the procession did we arrive at our first Sake station. Older women were serving up the participants with large bowls of Sake.
I thought it was part of the ceremony until I saw a westerner got served a cup. Ding ding! A light bulb materialized in my head. Let’s get partake in some Sake boys! JD, Dean, Kenny, and I lined for a bowl then went around back to the end of the line to get another. It wasn’t even moments later until we saw an inflow inebriated people being carried out in the opposite direction.
The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is crazy
Between the relentless bouts of Sake and drunk villagers in flames, we pushed our way in the main field, dodging and weaving from the flames and other random injuries that threatened to befall us. The whole thing can only be described as medieval warfare, chaotic and barbaric.
The free alcohol kept pouring in
We maneuvered our way towards the front fighting crowds, flames, ice, darkness, and Aussies. We positioned ourselves near a Sake fueling station, with massive tubs of Sake enough to end the current California drought. Inebriated villagers pour bystanders glasses (not little cups) of Sake while guzzling a few glasses of it themselves.
JD can’t seem to say no to any of the free alcohol handed to him. He must have drunk his weight in sake that night. But I’ve no room to talk. I chugged down just as much. Then the time warps begun. I could hear Dean somewhere behind me yelling, “Dude I’m traveling back in time!” To my right, I thought I saw Kenny talking to some random Canadian girl and then Poof! I looked again, and I couldn’t find him.
Between the mobs of drunk villagers with flaming torches engaged in a Medieval siege battle, Sake-fuelled insanity, and hordes of strangers lost in translation. I feel my head spin, and then there was silence. The festival was over.
The flames disappeared. The crowd had vanished. Dazed and confused. How did I get here? What the hell is going on? I swear I traveled back and then forward again in time. A big chunk of my memory, dissolved in alcohol that night that will never get back.
But, where the fuck’s Kenny?!?
I was holding on to JD, who can’t stand up while walking down the street looking for Kenny. He was painting the pavement with whatever dinner he ate that night. Dean was a stumbling mess, zig-zagging on the alleyway like a drunk village idiot. He fell into a canal and what shouldn’t funny was now a hilarious gaffe exacerbated by the Mary Jane edibles I consumed earlier. I couldn’t help but burst out in uncontrollable laughter as he crawled out of the hole like a wet gopher.
I texted Kenny with what little signal and juice I had left, but no response or rather I didn’t respond. All I remember was getting a taxi. We arrived at our resort hotel with a startling revelation. Kenny wasn’t with us, and he has our keys!
Dude, where the fuck’s Kenny?
We slept in the lobby for about an hour waiting and until Kenny arrived and I exhaled a sigh of relief from seeing he was okay. For a minute there I thought I’d be yelling something out of a South Park episode. “Oh, my God! They killed Kenny!” He said he had to pay $100 for the taxi he stumbled upon to take him back. He said he received our messages but couldn’t make out the drunk texts.
We marched back to our room hoping to catch a few hours of sleep hoping to remember that night the next day.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE NOZAWA ONSEN FIRE FESTIVAL?