Japanese culture is as diverse as they come that at some point the emotion reached by performance artists can somehow transcend the spoken word.

Before my trip to the Tohoku region, to Niigata prefecture to be exact, I learned that we will be watching so Geisha performances so I had to brush upon my understanding of this very visual part of their culture.

Geisha are professional entertainers who attend guests during meals, banquets and other occasions. They are trained in various traditional Japanese arts, such as dance and music, as well as in the art of communication. Their role is to make guests feel at ease with conversation, drinking games and dance performances.

Tohoku 60

Granted, these performances are for tourists but at yen 4,500 per person, including a luxurious lunch, you get excellent value for money and a glimpse into a world that is usually hidden away.

Tohoku 66Namahage

After my stint in Niigata, the culture of Namahage brings 180 degrees of contrast from the Geisha dancers. I was not prepared for the intensity of the drum performance and much less to the learning of the culture of the Namahage. To a someone who has been brought up from a semi quasi western upbringing, with the proverbial belief of not sparing the rod to help the children be brought up in the right path, this culture takes the cake in taking it to the extreme.

“Are there any crybabies here?” may not be something you want to hear shouted through your door on New Year’s Eve, but the people of Akita Prefecture, the Namahage, a Japanese demon, is their own mix between Santa Claus and the Krampus. They are yearly visitors for many people living in North-Western Honshu.

These ogres mission are simply to weed out the the children have been behaving during the past year.  The main things the Namahage look for are laziness, being a crybaby, and not listening to your parents.

So brats beware!!

The good part is, parents of good children offer the “demons” some food and sake, they will supposedly protect your home from natural disasters, sickness, and promote good crops.

To some, this may seem pretty scary and traumatic, but for parents and the young men playing the part of the Namahage, it’s a light-hearted, symbolic tradition that has been continued and protected for generations.

Tohoku 63

The Origins of the Namahage – 999 stone steps

The folk tale goes like this; the Chinese Han Emperor sent five ogres, or oni, to steal crops and young women from the villages of the Oga Peninsula, or the Akita Prefecture. The villagers managed to trick the oni into accepting a bet: The oni could have every young woman in their villages if they could build a one thousand step stone staircase up to the temple at the top of a nearby mountain in one night. The oni accepted. The ogres were about to start putting down the one thousandth step when a villager, pretending to be a rooster, crowed as if the sun were coming up. The oni thought they had failed and angrily marched back up the mountain and left the stairs incomplete with 999 stairs.

My personal theory, is in line with the common belief that the Ogres were actually foreigners with large stature (like the Vikings). These people were startling to the native Japanese and spoke languages they didn’t understand, thus becoming demons in the eyes of the natives.

Whatever the story, Namahage are pretty scary looking. Over time, the legends surrounding them changed to the point where they don’t play too much of a part in the events surrounding them today.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *