Namahage: A New Year’s tradition on Akita’s Oga Peninsula

PHOTO BY VICKI L BEYER

AKITA —

“Better behave, or the boogey man will get you!” How many parents have said that to their children over the years?

On Akita’s Oga Peninsula, children are told it is the “namahage” who will come for them. And come they do. Namahage go door to door at New Year’s, seeking out misbehaving children and others who aren’t living up to expectations.

Namahage is a demon/ogre whose origins are shrouded by history. Some say the first namahage were ship-wrecked sailors. Others say they are demons introduced by a Chinese emperor 2,000 years ago.  Wherever they came from, they’re now a local institution.

Every year local men dress up as namahage by putting on diabolical masks and straw capes, and go house to house. When the namahage first arrive at a house, they usually stomp in, roaring, growling and generally frightening the inhabitants. Small children often cry — the desired result of the commotion. 

The namahage travel with a “naughty and nice” book in which is recorded information about the inhabitants of each house gathered in advance. Using this information the namahage will admonish children to behave better, study harder, wash behind their ears, or whatever it is that the child’s parents told the namahage earlier. In some households, young wives also receive scoldings by the namahage, perhaps because they’re not very good cooks, spend too much time playing mah jong, don’t help out enough in the family business, or have some other perceived shortcoming. During the course of the visit, straws often drop on the floor from the straw cape that is part of the namahage costume. These are regarded as lucky tokens and are often kept on the family god shelf for the rest of the year.

At each house the namahage are also offered refreshments, warming sake being a staple. In the course of an evening’s house calls, the namahage and their entourage can get quite inebriated, after which they conclude with a shrine visit to dispose of the costume.

You don’t have to be lucky enough to be a house guest in an Oga Peninsula home to witness this spectacle.  It is re-enacted multiple times daily at the Namahage Museum in the center of the peninsula. The museum also contains a display on the history of namahage, a large collection of namahage costumes, and film footage of actual namahage house calls, as well as demonstrations of how namahage masks are carved. 

On the hill behind the museum is Shinzan Shrine, believed to be the shrine where the local people first outwitted namahage over a thousand years ago. Make your visit in February and you can witness the Namahage Sedo Festival, which features a parade of namahage coming down off the mountain by torchlight.

The Oga Peninsula is the site of one of Japan’s oldest lighthouses. First built on Nyudozaki Point on the 40th parallel in 1898, the current black and white striped lighthouse was built in 1951. The 29.7-meter-high lighthouse is open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (200 yen). A sightseeing boat also operates from near the lighthouse for a different perspective on the rock formations of the coastline.

Gao, the Oga Aquarium, is on the west coast of the peninsula, near the village of Toga. A glass bottom cruise boat operates from here.

The Oga Onsen-go (hot springs village), on the north side of the peninsula, features a number of hot springs hotels where you can relax and “take the waters”. From late April to early November, some hotels feature evening Japanese taiko drum performances with drummers dressed in namahage costumes. As is often the case in rural Japan, the local staff are friendly and helpful.  As you might expect, fresh seafood features largely in the local cuisine.

The Oga Peninsula is about an hour by bus from Akita Station.

  • -2

    ReformedBasher

    A former boss said Namahage might be based on... Vikings.

    Red (drunken and/or bezerker?) faces, shaggy hair, "aggressive" behaviour...

    The Vikings were great navigators and they did settle/conquer part of Russia so it's not impossible they made their way here (Keyword: impossible, however unlikely) ... but unfortunately they never had horns on their helmets.

  • 0

    Serrano

    Namahage may explain what is wrong with many Japanese people - when they were kids they were scared half to death by these monsters shouting, "Are there any bad children here?!" lol

  • 0

    Raymond Chuang

    Indeed, these mythological characters inspired the livery design of the JR East E6 Series Shinkansen trainsets--the colors used match that of a namahage mask.

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