Akita’s devilish side: the Namahage Sedo Festival

No one really wants their children to be terrified, or do they?

In the far northern Japanese prefecture of Akita, a place steeped in folk culture, there is one nighttime event that is dedicated to scaring the hell out of children, the Namahage Sedo Festival.

Held each year in the dead of winter at the Shinzan Shinto shrine near the (delightfully named) town of Oga, the Namahage Sedo Festival sees men donning straw outfits and masks purified by a Shinto priest before transforming into Namahage, or demons.

In a maelstrom of noise, live taiko drumming, red hot fires and chaos, the Namahage dazzle the audience with a series of performances that culminates as they descend from the thickly snowy mountain above the shrine carrying burning flames and what appear to be massive knives. This is a breathtaking sight for the gaijin (foreign) visitor to take in, truly a world class experience.

To my complete disbelief, parents willingly allow the Namahage to snatch their very young children away and give them a good fright. Several times I saw parents even thrust their quivering offspring into the hungry arms of the monsters! And I am talking about children around 2 and 3 years of age. Apparently there is some sort of lifetime benefit to this “facing up to your demons” experience.

This is what I love about Japan, it is a country full of beautiful contrasts and contradictions. Just when you were sure the Japanese were the epitome of kindness and gentleness, especially toward children, along come the Namahage!

To find out more about the fascinating and underrated Tohoku region of Japan, click here


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