Day trip to Akita’s land of the Namahage
When people talk about visiting Akita, I am often torn about what it is I should be suggesting they do. See some rice fields? Senshu Park? If Akita is not in festival season, my first thoughts are often that there is little to do or see to impress a first-timer, especially regarding the symbols Akita is famous for.
So, my friend, fresh from America, and I decided to do a day tour of the Oga Peninsula, where Akita’s arguably most famous cultural heritage, the terrifying Namahage, originates. I hadn’t spent much time in Oga before, except one trip to GAO aquarium two years prior (I have since learned that the name GAO, an anagram of Oga, is meant to mimic the sound of the Namahage’s cry – the more you know, people) and to the Namahage museum during February’s Namahage Sedo Festival. After getting suggestions and iPhone pins from Oga’s reigning sempai, we headed out from Akita City on our driving tour of Oga’s best sites.
Upon crossing the bridge on Route 7 into Oga City, as the first visitors to greet you, two 15-meter high Namahage, holding buckets in one hand and brandishing knives in the other, stand in battle stance. Situated beside a “michi no eki”—Japan’s roadside “stations”—the statues lend themselves nicely to photographs and gawking and also work to set the tone for the visual motif seen all over Oga – that of the ogres known as Namahage.
The legend of the Oga Namahage is, well, legendary. Despite my original belief that they existed to eat bad children, their real job includes admonishing children who have been lazy or disobedient while going door-to-door to visit the local families. Namahage are accepted into the houses as guests and given mochi to eat and sometimes sake. Today, the tradition of specifically appointed men dressing up as Namahage (the red face indicated male; the blue, female) and visiting homes as a way to teach children didactic lessons still exists. Namahage engage in several, dedicated-to-them festivals during winter, as well as being the pervasive symbol of Oga City, and often of Akita prefecture more generally.
We left the statues and continued on our journey, heading inland towards the top of Mt Kampu for a stunning, 360-degree view of all the lovely flora and sea Oga has to offer. At the top of the mountain road stand an omiyage shop, restaurant, and observation tower, as well as paved plateaus for taking in the view without having to pay. Admission to the tower cost 500 yen per person, so we opted to skip it (it appeared to be only about a floor above where you could stand for observation, although it did seem to have a rotating platform that would provide a full panorama if you walking in circles isn’t your thing). The breathtaking landscape could be viewed just as well on our own without the added height. We had lunch in the restaurant, which offers traditional Japanese set lunches for standard prices. The food was good, but better than the food was the ability to eat your soba and overlook the Sea of Japan and its surrounding natural beauty at the same time.
From Mt Kampu, we headed northwest toward the top bit of the Oga peninsula along Route 55, through the sleepy streets of Oga’s countryside with the sea always on our right. The road loops around at Nyudozaki, what appears to me to be the westernmost point of Akita prefecture. A row of lively-looking seafood and ice cream shops provide a seaside-boardwalk feel to the literal seaside in front of them. Nyudozaki sports a black-and-white striped lighthouse, monument stones and sundial marking the 40-degree northern latitude, and jagged coast, waves, and jutting rocks all along. We sat on the grass for a while and just watched – the waves against the shore, the golden buzzards swopping too close for comfort overhead, the picturesque scene of it all – until the sun got too hot, and we were on our way once more.
Route 121 takes you along the outside edge of the peninsula, so you can almost always see the water, except when you are engulfed by trees and rocks that seem so thickly reminiscent of a more primitive time as to seem not quite real. At the entrance to the Monzen road (Route 59) stands GAO Aquarium, jutting out almost poetically from the rock face and home to Akita’s own polar bear family. The aquarium was recently revamped and now includes seals, both of the California Lion and Spotted varieties, in addition to the large, main tank featuring sea turtles, which can viewed from two levels of the building, tanks focusing on creatures both from the Sea of Japan and from around Japan, tanks of jelly fish, an Amazonian creatures display, a penguin exhibit (and frequent shows of penguin feedings), and the main attraction, the three polar bears who call Akita home.
There is a large outdoor area featuring a pool in which we could see the mother and baby bears playing together, and an indoor glass observation wall from which we could see the papa bear swimmingly happily among the artificial snow. Although I generally find aquariums somewhat terrifying, especially with giant Japanese crabs whose legs are so long they maneuver more like nightmare spiders than cute hermits and an electric eel powering a mini Kanto lantern every time it moves on display, when these horrors are paired with the far more endearing playful polar bears, peppy penguins, calming jellies, and smug seals, it is now definitely worth the price of admission.
The Monzen road then lead us to Goshado. These five temples, picturesquely side by side facing the Sea of Japan, are located at the top of the 999 Namahage steps. Supposedly built by the first Namahage, these uneven stone steps seem nearly impossible to count today, as determining which one is which has become ambiguous with the years and landscape changes. Moreover, as my friend remarked, the Namahage don’t seem like they would be precision builders. Despite the rocky climb, however, the beautiful shrines at the top of the staircase make the huffing and puffing a thing of the past as soon as you see the wooden fronts and gables peeking out from behind the large trees which border the path towards them.
All in a row stand five weathered, wooden structures, the middle, larger one flanked by two smaller imitations on either side. The scene seemed so perfectly preserved in nature, in another time, that although there were displays of the traditional goods sold at shrines, I had to wonder when the last time anyone had rung the temple bell had been. Wishes and fortunes written on white paper remained tied to the handrails of the main temple, but human interaction seemed so removed from the place that presently existed. We took photos, and then retreated quietly and back down the jagged Namahage steps.
The final stop on our Oga tour was Godzilla Rock, a five-minute drive along Monzen road from Goshado and easily Japan’s most over-hyped and under-whelming, naturally occurring stone structure. First, you must walk a path down from the road to sea-level, and then you must proceed to pick your way over pointy rocks and garbage, around wide puddles when no clear path through presents itself, and between other, non-Godzilla giant rocks until you can stand in just the right spot to see the Godzilla monster’s open mouth against the sky backdrop behind him.
You then think, Huh.
You get the feeling that the rock wants to be more intimidating and impressive than it actually is, because, indeed, it does fail to impress. It’s more quirky than anything else, but then again, Japan does love its quirks, and so do the people who make journeys and stand and take photos of things like Godzilla Rock. People – exactly like me. So I guess I proved them right.
With those photographs on our phones and cameras and the sky slowly turning pink, we returned to the car, drove past the fifteen-meter Namahage once again, and re-entered Akita City. Starting at Mt. Kampu and ending at Godzilla Rock makes a scenic loop around the edge of the peninsula, from which stopping to see the sites is convenient and all part of the fun. Our day tour of Oga City and Oga Peninsula, however, had revealed scenes from around Akita that were new and delightful to me, as well as providing an introduction to my friend of the beauty, both natural and otherwise, that Akita has to offer those willing to make the drive to find it.