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.
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 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.
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.