Shimotsuki — The festival where gods gather to bathe.

December 20th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Deep in the foothills of the Southern Japanese Alps, you’ll find the tiny hamlet of around 100 souls called Shimoguri no Sato.   Or maybe you won’t, as Shimoguri is considered a ‘hidden village’.  Perched precariously on a steep hill, the area is also known as the “Tyrol of Japan”, although “Japan’s Machu Picchu” may be more applicable.  Not short of nicknames, Shimoguri is also thought to be a ‘tenku’ (天空) for the way it seemingly floats above the clouds.

Matchu Picchu-like Shimoguri no Sato (Photo courtesy of Katsumasa Furusawa)

Due to its harsh geography with its hillside location averaging a steep 38 degree slope ranging from 800 to 1100 meters above sea level, practically the only thing that can be grown is potato.  And the elderly farmers, mostly by hand, produce a variety called shimoguri, named after their land.

Many moons ago, I helped with the text for Nagano Prefecture’s official “Go-Nagano” website.  I tried to do as much research as possible for each entry including physically visiting many of the sites.  Due to its remote location, I never made it to Shimoguri.  But I have been enchanted by it’s storybook-like setting ever since writing the Shimoguri entry.

However, I recently finally got the chance to visit.  A colleague of mine had spent time there on many occasions including for the mystical Shimotsuki Festival.  10 shrines in the Toyama District hold the ceremony every December, including Shimoguri’s Gojusha Daimyoujin Shrine where it takes place annually on December 13th.  The highlight of the festival is a ritual where water is splashed from a boiling cauldron with a bare hand.  I was to find out that the festival, a nationally designated Important Intangible Cultural Property, is much more complex than just that ritual.

After what seemed like an endless drive into the deep unknown, we finally arrived at Shimoguri around 10pm.  After tea at the house of an acquaintance of my colleague, we headed up to the shrine reaching there just past 11pm to find the evening’s events just getting underway.  We passed through the brand new stone torii gate and slid open the door to the main hall and ducked in.

A bonfire was burning in the center, heating two cauldrons of water.  Visitors give a little donation and then stand along the edge of the crowded hall craning to get a look through the smoke at the various dances and proceedings centered on the fire.

Names of the people who donated.

The main theme of the Shimotsuki Festival is gods come from all across to Japan to have a bath, hence the afore-mentioned splashing of the boiling water.  If that sounds familiar, you may have seen “Spirited Away”.  The animator, Hayao Miyazaki, got his inspiration from Shimoguri’s festival.

One after another, different gods and characters dance around the fire in a hypnotic rhythm, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, often in groups of 8.

Preparing the bonfire

When we first arrived, 8 people slowly circled around the fire with a ‘sensu’ fan in one hand and ‘suzu’ bell in the other other.

Then they switched to a katana sword and continued their mesmerizing movements.

Various gods represented by people wearing unique masks then took their turns.

Some interacted with the people watching, such as the ‘mother’ god carrying a ‘baby’ that some tried to touch for good fortune.

A couple red foxes performed an intricate dance.

At one point, a real 3-year old child battled a dragon.

Punctuating the festivities were some younger participants whose dance grew wilder, culminating in what can only be described as stage diving but without the stage.

At intervals, the bonfire was built up and the flute and taiko music reached a crescendo

for the men wearing tengu masks

to perform the ritual of splashing the boiling water with their bare hands.

I took a direct hit a couple of times and the water was painfully hot — I can’t imagine the courage it took to stick their hands in the scalding hot water.

We wound up leaving around 3:30 in the morning with still a few more gods to come.  The locals apparently end things with a banquet at 4am.  Their stamina is incredible!  And it all the more amazing considering one other nickname for Shimoguri — ‘genkai shuraku’, literally, a hamlet faced with extinction.  Currently there are only 6 school-aged children in Shimoguri and in all likelihood they will move away for high school and not come back.

In some ways, Shimoguri and its Shimotsuki Festival have a primordial, almost timeless feel.  But time is not working in Shimoguri’s favor.  The village and its festival need to be treasured now.

What’s Happening in Hakuba for the 2018/19 Season

December 13th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities

The Ski Season is upon us! While the snow accumulation has been limited thus far this year, The Hakuba Valley season will officially begin this weekend with Goryu opening the Sky 4 chair lift on Saturday. Happo-One will open the gondola but only for sight-seeing. The rest of the resorts will open for business as soon as there is enough snow, which hopefully will be before the Christmas season. Despite the slow start, there is much to look forward to this year in Hakuba. Here are the best events for the 2018/19 season.

First Base Party (January 11th)

Tom Tilley (Triple J presenter and client liaison member) and Hugo Gruzman’s (1/2 of the Flight Facilities duo) are taking a giant powder-packed leap into the pristine Japanese Alps with their “Vintage Après Soiree” First Base party in January 2019!

The First Base parties have become a mainstay during the Australian winter seasons and now the group will visit Japan. The duo frequently enlists great artists to perform with and some recent notable names include Hayden James, Confidence Man, Touch Sensitive, CC:DISCO and more.

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The Free Ride World Tour (January 19-26)

The Free Ride World Tour will come to Hakuba for a second straight year. The Free Ride World Tour is the worldwide circuit of freeride snowboarding and skiing with the best riders in the world competing on five of the most challenging alpine faces in some of the world’s most famous resorts. Happo-One will host the event and with it lots of festivities for free ride fans.

Free Ride World Tour (January 19 – January 26)

 

Burton Qualifiers Jan 26th

The Burton Qualifiers is the premiere amateur snowboard contest series offering local riders of all ability levels and ages the chance to come together for a fun day of riding, cash prizes and the opportunity to go all the way to the finals! Now in its fourth season, the FREE Burton Qualifiers series continues to grow with the addition of two new international stops and a huge increase in the already record prize purse with $30,000 in cash on the line.

Fire Festival February 22nd

The annual Happo Fire Festival will be held on February 22nd and will feature torch wielding ski performances, bonfires, raffles, and lots of FREE sake. This is a great way to take in some Japanese culture during your ski holiday.

Happo Fire Festival, February 22nd

Icy Gourmet: Frozen Tofu

December 4th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Seasonal Topics

Tofu is by far one of the most well-known Japanese foods.
But have you ever heard of Frozen Tofu?

Frozen tofu

Frozen tofu, called “koori-dofu” in Japanese, is a specialty of frosty regions.
Just like its more famous cousin, frozen tofu is made with soy milk which is made to coagulate and solidify by adding bittern to it. For those wondering, bittern is a bitter-tasting solution rich in minerals obtained from seawater. Unlike regular tofu, though, it uses less water and more soy beans, making it richer in proteins.
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