Normally I'd be talking about Christmas, but I've been stuck inside with a nasty bug. Inside my head I've been returning to Akita though, in Northern Japan, so let me introduce you to the Namahage, the region's most famous folkloric characters.
The Oga peninsula has lots of thick forest and lovely coastline, and driving along the remote little road we suddenly came across these two giving us a friendly wave...
Well, maybe not that friendly.
Akita Prefecture is famous for its Namahage. Or Yamahage (see later). Our friends were taking us to a museum deep in the forest, part of which is a traditional inn (below), where it's a good idea to begin your visit.
Once inside the inn, you need to imagine it's New Year and the landscape outside is deep in snow. There is nobody for miles, except..... the Namahage. These are demonic religious figures whose job it is to make sure that people (especially the children) are working hard, being tough and enduring difficult things. They dress in straw, have long hair and terrifying masks.
They arrive outside the house roaring and shouting and banging at the door, upon which they must be invited in. Once inside, they stamp about (stamping is often a way of getting rid of evil). Then they shout at the children, demanding to see their lesson books, and fire questions around about how good everyone is being. You see the one below shaking his finger.
When everything is in uproar, and the children are screaming their heads off, the Namahage are offered food, drink and sake ("Kampai!" or "cheers!" - see below). Then they go away, leaving everyone to reflect on whether or not they have been quite hardworking and strong enough lately.
I guess the tradition wouldn't get the approval of supernanny Jo Frost, though Mary Poppins might have had a shade of sympathy .... but anyway, that's what they do. Near the inn, there's a really beautiful museum giving a lot of background to this curious tradition and
also offering you the chance to dress up as a namahage yourself, in rice straw cape and shoes. Sorry it's a bit blurry, I wasn't using flash.
And when fully dressed you might look a bit like this....
Here is T. trying on a mask for size.
and local kids had done some terrific, and terrifying murals, although, as you see the kid in the green sweater at the bottom of the picture is obviously finding the whole thing really amusing... there's always one, isn't there?
In fact, the Namahage are the popular face of another very similar tradition, the Yamahage. Confusingly, the Yamahage, although they look and act in a similar way, are much more rustic and are not a tourist attraction, and are more associated with having a good rice harvest. As in many parts of rural Japan, though, the young are fleeing to Tokyo and other big cities, and the private old religious customs are struggling to survive in their pure and original form. So the Yamahage, with their simple rice straw masks are falling foul of the plain fact that you need to be young and quite serious about the rice harvest to tramp around for hours through sub-zero winter woods while dressed in straw. It is as well that the Namahage are keeping their traditions alive.
Anyway, there are religious roots to both Namahage and Yamahage, as you can see from zigzag white streamers the creatures carry (below and first picture).
I would love to go into this in more detail but I don't want this post to be full of my rather half-baked thoughts on Japanese folklore, so I'll just say that I bought the twins some splendid Namahage socks in the fantastic gift shop. I was also a bit tempted by this keyring of Jibanyan, "Yokai Watch"'s fire raising cat, as a Namahage. Don't you think it's cute?
By the time we'd seen the museum it was gone lunchtime, so we drove a little further on to a fish restaurant our friends knew. We would never have found this on our own. It's a simple place, with plastic tables and a couple of Japanese style low tables, and all over the walls are pictures of the owners and their friends. Basically they get fish from the sea each day, chop it up and cook it with vegetables in a wooden dish containing red hot stones. It is really, really delicious, and, as always in Japan, beautifully presented with many side dishes.
The owners were so cheerful and friendly, chatting and joking with their customers. They posed for their picture.
And since we were their very last lunch customers of the day, they came out and waved us goodbye when we left, also bowing as is the Japanese custom.
We drove back via some wild, windy and unspoiled coastal scenery. By now the sun was starting to appear. I could have stayed for far longer and taken a walk by the sea...
But we had to get back to collect our friend's son from school!