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.