Soon after the first bus trip AIU set up for us, I was ready for a second one. I heard that a number of bus trips got cancelled because of fear of aftershocks from the big earthquake. Still, they managed to give us one more trip. This one was equally as jam-packed with activities. Although it was somewhat hectic, each different location provided a great, unique experience.

This trip was to the Oga Peninsula of Akita prefecture, a popular tourist destination reaching out into the Sea of Japan. The first place we stopped at was at the edge of this peninsula, looking out over seaside cliffs. There wasn’t really much to do here, except appreciate the beautiful and rugged coastline. There was also a gorgeous lighthouse. I had never seen a lighthouse in person before, so for some reason I was especially excited. Then I followed a verdant path out to a precipice. Above me hawks dove and soared while I stood on the edge. A kindly couple offered to take my photo.

I finally met up with Justin (I’m not sure how we got separated), and he went with me to explore the rest of the coast. I wanted to film the jagged rocks below and the water hitting the sides, so I crawled out onto the rocks that hung over the edge the most. Justin danced around on safer ground, begging me to come back. He was so worried I would fall, but I was being very careful. I just had to get a photo of these beautiful orange lilies growing on the side of the rock face, defying the odds with their brilliance. I am sure the Buddhist deities from the nearby shrine were watching over me.

Finally we meandered back to the bus and drove off for our second destination: an observation tower atop Mt. Kanpu, overlooking the peninsula. Although the mountain is small, the observation tower gives a 360 degree view of the peninsula as the tower rotates slowly. The staircase to the top is lined with pictures and text describing the history and culture of Oga. The views at the top were beautiful, but it was still early and foggy. By the time we left, however, the sun had come out. As we drove down the mountain to our next destination, the tower basked in the sunlight while colorful parachutes dotted the sky.

Next we visited the Gao Aquarium. For such a small aquarium, it had a great variety of creatures on display, including a polar bear. One of the best parts was right at the entrance, where two spotted seals pulled in the crowds with their puppy dog eyes. Even better was going through all the fish and crab exhibits, and hearing all the Japanese students saying “Oishisou!” which means, “That looks delicious!” I would have been happy to take my time there, but the people from AIU rushed us through in a mere 45 minutes. I definitely recommend the aquarium if you ever visit Oga. Just take a little extra time for me! I've included some videos I took there at the bottom of this post.

Our final location was the real point of the trip: the namahage museum. Akita prefecture in general, but especially the Oga Peninsula area, is famous for its namahage. Namahage are demons that live in the mountains that come down every New Year to terrorize the towns. They threaten to eat any children or new wives. They storm around making loud growling noises, carrying knives and sporting great red and blue ogre grimaces. Moving in pairs, they enter the house of a family and demand to eat the children. The children cry and scream and cling to their parents as the namahage try to take them away. The parents must then placate the demons by offering them food and sake. Finally, the demons agree to let the children live as long as they promise to be good, productive citizens.

The demons are portrayed by volunteer men who dress up in straw capes and homemade masks. The knives they carry are obviously fake, but they still present a very imposing façade! In Akita, many of the exchange students from AIU are allowed to dress up as the demons and join in on the fun.

Now, this being summer, there were no namahage festivals for us to enjoy. However, we got to visit a namahage museum, where we could learn all about this cultural trait. Our first introduction was a recording of a typical festival. The video showed the disguised men growling and grunting and snatching at children, while the children bawled and screamed and the parents laughed. Honestly, it was a little hard to watch. However, it is a time honored tradition, and none of the people who have grown up with yearly namahage visits seem to be all that scarred from the experience.

(The above video shows the namahage coming into a house. The little girl saying, "No, no! Scary!" Her parents are telling her it's okay. Around 1:30 the demons start trying to take kids from the parents in the audience. You don't have to watch the whole thing.)
Then we explored the wide array of displayed masks and a diorama recreating a typical namahage night. Traditionally the masks are carved from wood and are very intricate. An in-house artist was busy carefully carving new masks in a corner. He let me take pictures of him. I wish I could have bought one, but they were very expensive. I did get to try the namahage costume on, though. Too bad I still don’t look very imposing.
Finally we were led into a traditional Japanese style home where we settled onto the floor. Two men, looking burly and terrifying in their namahage costumes, came barging in to give us a live demonstration.  Even though I understood the tradition and knew there were just men under those masks, the performers were very convincing and it was actually kind of scary! There was a lot of nervous laughter as they jumped at you, demanding that you do all your homework and get good grades.

The sun was beginning to set by now, and we enjoyed the last part of the trip by wandering around the gardens outside the museum. Everything was green and lush. There was a beautiful, strange tree covered in rope and white paper strands, signifying that a deity lived there. A Buddhist shrine sat at the top of a hill. Mysteriously, all the heads of the Buddha statues had been cut off. It was kind of eerie. On the way down, I passed by this brown tree frog, perfectly set against a single leaf. He sat as still and peaceful as a monk himself.
On the way home, two large namahage statues glared at us as we left the final pit-stop, reminding us to be good and study hard.  

This kind of insight into a popular rural tradition is my favorite thing about traveling. I love how Japan has so much respect for their past. This tradition is another reminder of the group culture prevalent in Japan. Even the demons want you to contribute to society! I hope I get to go back in the winter someday, so I can experience this fascinating, silly, scary tradition first hand.

Have you encountered any traditions about demons in the places you’ve visited? Would you like to dress up as a namahage and scare little children? Let me know in the comments!



05/11/2013 2:09pm

Very well put together


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