One of the main reasons I chose Akita, Japan as my study abroad destination is because I wanted to experience the rural traditions that are unique to this part of the world. So it’s easy to imagine my joy when I was able to not only experience one of these traditions, but take part in it firsthand.
Becoming a Servant of the Gods
The Namahage Festival is an event held in Akita around the beginning of a New Year. During this festival, young men dress up as deities known as Namahage and go house to house in their village to check for any misbehaving children and to bestow luck for the New Year. It might sound like an odd tradition, but it’s certainly no odder than dressing up young children as ghosts and monsters for Halloween and having them go house-to-house, begging strangers for candy.
Recently, small towns in Akita have had trouble finding enough people willing to help with the festival. However, the small town of Kayagasawa was able to continue the Namahage Festival thanks to a partnership with Akita International University. Thanks to this partnership, six students, including myself, were able to continue this unique local tradition by visiting the town of Kayagasawa and taking on the role of the Namahage.
The Namahage Festival
It was bitterly cold on the night we traveled to Kayagasawa for the Namahage Festival, but we were all in good spirits. Once we arrived, we split into three teams of two people each—one person played the Namahage who scared the children, and one person played the priest who performed the ritual that gives good luck to the household for the year. The Namahage costumes were quite complicated. There were several bundles of straw to make up the body, a large ogre-like mask, and a wooden knife. After we were all dressed, our groups split off and began visiting houses.
Much like Halloween back in the States, we knew which houses were participating in the festival by which houses had left their porch lights on. As my partner and I walked up to the first house we started screaming and banging on the windows to announce that the Namahage had arrived. Once inside the house I, as the Namahage, asked if any of the children in the house had been bad that year.
While the older family members laughed and took pictures, some of the children were understandably terrified. And who could blame them for being frightened with a demon-looking god running around their house? But I took off my mask and smiled at them, which calmed them down. We chatted with the family for a while, and then my teammate performed the ritual to bestow good fortune upon the house before we headed to the next house.
We repeated this routine until we’d visited every house that had its lights on in the town. The families were incredibly welcoming and patient with me when I struggled with the language barrier. Mostly they asked to take pictures with us, and sometimes they fed us snacks! And not every child we saw was scared of us. Some were happy to see us and wanted to give us high-fives. I remember one baby who sat perfectly still on the couch and stared up at us with really wide eyes the whole time. We also visited an older couple who didn’t have any children, but who were happy to see us and receive our good luck.
A New Perspective on Community
When I came to Japan, I was hoping to interact with the local people and learn about their customs and traditions, so participating in the Namahage Festival was an excellent opportunity to actually experience a local tradition.
This event also helped me see my community back home in a different way. I never thought about volunteering for a local event, but now I see how great it can be to meet the people of your hometown. So maybe when I get back to America I’ll volunteer for something like this. Until then, I’m looking forward to experiencing more local traditions during my time in Akita, though I’m not sure anything can top dressing up like a god and getting free treats!