Saturday, February 16, 2013

Chasing Away Evil Spirits

Mimi suddenly shrieks: “Namake-mono wa ine ga? Naguko wa ine ga? (怠けものはいねが?泣ぐ子はいねが?– Are there any lazy people around? Any crying kids?)” She’s wearing the mask of an Oni (demon).

Kowai!” says a startled Ariaguma (怖い – Eek!), as Mimi bursts into laughter.

Mimi explains that she heard from a friend about an annual spring event in Slovenia related to our last blog posting about bean-tossing (mame-maki). In a more rational voice, she explains, “Have you ever heard of Kurentovanje? It's a very interesting carnival, I once saw on a TV documentary.

Participants dressed in sheep furs and masks hang bells around their belts, which ring loudly as they walk about. The ringing of these bells is said to drive away evil spirits and to announce the coming of spring.

Mimi thinks the creatures look like rather friendly big birds, however.

The Tschaggatta festival in Lotchental Swizerland is also similar. Villagers from remote valleys wear hideous wooden spirit masks, dress in shaggy furs, and carry heavy bells. These
Tschaggatta are said to possess special powers.

One hundred years ago, hordes of Tschagatta stormed through the villages, punishing community ne’er-do-wells. It was said they had magical powers to scare away winter and death, allowing spring to be reborn.

Tschaggata masks are scarier than those of Kurentovanje, although both are meant to scare children out of misbehavior. It's fascinating how the essence of these events seems so similar among such widely divergent cultures.

Mimi says hearing about these customs reminds her of the Akita winter festival  called Namahage. That’s why she was trying to scare Araiguma.  

Namahage is an annual event held the last day of the year. Namahage are creatures (seen above), said to be messengers of the gods. They visit local houses to admonish the wicked, to drive away evil spirits, and to bring happiness and good fortunes.

Villagers don wooden masks and straw-filled keramino clothes while brandishing giant knives. They wander about, shouting “Namake-mono wa inega? Naguko wa inega?” (Are there any lazy people around? Any crying kids?) in gruff voices. Their manner is quite aggressive, and particularly terrifying to children, as they look like Oni.

There are basically two types of namahage masks, one blue and one red, each with similar expressions. In this respect, they differ from Tschagatta masks, which come in a great variety.
The red namahage carries a tool in his right hand called a Nuki, a religious tool priests swing in the air above their heads to drive away evil spirits. 

The literal translation of namahage is to remove a low-temperature burn. Such burn injuries come from idling too long by the fireside, which is thus a metaphor for laziness. Eventually this meaning was transferred to the name of the mythic creatures.  

The blue-masked namahage carries a knife to slice off these superficial burns, and catch them in his wooden bucket.

Today, one can meet them annually at the Namahage festival, held Friday through Sunday, the second week of February in Akita’s Oga Peninsula.

For three nights 50 torch-wielding namahages descend from the mountains, thereafter engaging in traditional folk dancing and music.

Since Akita is located in northern Japan, it sees a lot of snow, and is quite cold, but the festival is well worth a visit, as one feels as if she’s traveled back in time.

Adds Mimi, “Akita is very low on crime, so the Namahage appear to be effective!”

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