With the amount of snow that Nagano gets, it should be no surprise that it has a snow festival. In Iiyama, about 30 minutes by car from Shinano, a yearly snow festival attracts huge crowds of people and features things like snow sculptures, fire dances, taiko drum performances, and sledding. I arrived close to sun down and missed the fun things during the day, but I was still able to enjoy the snow sculptures and the fire dance, which is an important ritual that they do during the summer as well.
There were lots of cool sculptures; my favorites are the two below. Bob the minion, and one cheering on Japanese athletes in the 2018 Winter Olympics
The fire dance was amazing! In this ritual, there is a tengu (a sort of bird-human hybrid common in Shinto mythology) who wants to get through a barrier. However, when he tries to get through, he finds that he can’t. The barrier is protected by five charms that he must get rid of. He does this by setting them on FIRE.
The part of the tengu was played by a man dressed in white clothing with stuff wrapped around his shins and forearms, wearing a tengu mask and a rather interesting looking helmet. He was led in a procession to the clearing, and when he arrived, he struck a superman pose while two attendants grabbed a rope with five charms hanging from it and held it up (the barrier). The tengu grabbed a short knife from his belt and ran at the rope, trying to cut it in half. When it didn’t work, he bent down and noted the charms hanging from the rope. At this point, the lights went out and he returned to the center of the clearing. Then, more attendants brought a huge, kerosene-soaked pillar of hay or something over to him. They set it on fire, and the tengu picked it up, swung it around in the air, and did a dance before burning one or two of the charms off. He did this a total of THREE TIMES! The video below is of the last pillar being burned. An attendant takes the remaining piece from the previous pillar, waves it a little to get the flame going, then uses it to light the last pillar. You can see the rope with the two remaining charms in the back.
You can tell he’s tired; when he hops on one leg from one side to the other, he can’t do it without stopping and taking a small step or two. Also, it became clear REAL fast what the purpose of the interesting headgear was. Every time he swung the pillar around, embers went everywhere, so the headgear must’ve been to protect his upper body. The things wrapped around his shins must’ve had the same purpose, but even still, you can see in the video that two attendants run over to him when he’s on one knee and stomp out an ember that fell on his leg. Dangerous, but SO COOL!!
Once the tengu burned all the charms off, he once again brandished his knife, and, with attendants pulling the rope taunt, he ran at it again, easily chopping it in half. Good job tengu-san! おつかれさま！