If the Western culture has a trick or treat custom wherein kids dress up in scary costumes to play a prank or receive sweets from house owners, in Japan, particularly in Akita Prefecture, grown men in frightful demon masks will come knocking on your door. This is called the Namahage visit. It used to take place on January 15th of the Lunar calendar, but these days, they do it on New Year’s Eve of the Western calendar.
The Namahage mask design varies depending on the village. Due to its frightening features, it is often regarded as a demon when in fact it is a kind of Shinto god, believed to bring good fortune and an abundant harvest. The Namahage outfit is made up of garments with woven straws called a “kede” and straw boots called “waragutsu.” To complete the costume, they carry a “deba” knife or at times, a “gohei,” which is a wooden sword used in Shinto rituals.
During the winter season, most people just want to laze around and sit idly by the fire. Doing this for too long can cause blisters called “namomi” in the Akita dialect. “Namahage” is derived from the expression “namomihagi,” which means “peeling off the blisters.” It signifies getting rid of laziness.
The men in Namahage costumes go around the village and check on people’s homes to see if there’s anyone being lazy or doing bad behavior. House owners show them hospitality by offering food and sake.
One of the theories that explain the origin of the Namahage goes way back to the ruling era of Emperor Wu of Han who brought five bats that transformed into demon ogres, from China to Japan. They worked for the Emperor but they were only allowed to rest on the 15th day of the new year.
On their rest day, the demon ogres go down to the village of Oga to steal crops and women. The distressed villagers tried to make a deal and asked the demons to make a thousand stone steps to the Goshado Shrine. If they do so in one night, the villagers would give them an annual female offering. If not, the demons must promise to never return again.
Surprisingly, the demons have already made 999 stone steps at dawn, but just when they were about to finish the final stone, the village fool mimicked the sound of a rooster. Believing that they failed the task, the demons fled and never came back.
Nowadays, fewer people are participating in the Namahage visits but Oga City in Akita tries to preserve the culture and spread information through the Namahage Museum. Located in Kitaura Shinzan aza-Mizukuisawa, the Namahage Museum features an extensive display of Namahage masks and clothing. In the museum’s Densho Hall, they show a documentary on the history of Namahage. Finally, visitors also get the chance to dress up as a Namahage in the Costume and Photo Area.
Right next to the Namahage Museum is the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum. It displays traditional handicrafts and gives a rare Namahage experience to tourists.
The Namahage Museum is open all year round with an admission fee of 500 yen. Paying 800 yen includes an admission to the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum.
To learn more about Namahage and the traditions of Oga City, why not visit this museum in Akita Prefecture?