**Bear with me in this post, as I am trying to be respectful of the Namahage Museum’s wish that visitors do not use photos taken inside their establishment for any sort of commercial or social media presence. I feel this sight is definitely worth highlighting, but my photos may not make it look as interesting as it really is!**
While I was in Tohoku earlier this month, I spent two nights camping with friends on the Oga Peninsula in the far western reaches of Akita Prefecture. If Oga makes you think of ogre, you’re not far off in understanding one of the dominant folk customs of this remote area – the namahage. And if you want to learn more of about this unique regional custom, a visit to the peninsula’s Namahage Museum is a must.
Namahage are related to Japan’s oni, ogre-like demons who feature into many hot spring areas (“hells, as many are known) and who play a main role in the spring Setsubun festival. But Akita’s namahage show up in the dead of winter, as families celebrate the arrival of the New Year.
According to the museum’s explanations and the very interesting video evidence, young men of the village attire themselves in ogre-like masks and straw clothing (mainly for warmth and because straw is waterproof) and visit the houses of the area to – as the video shows – scare the bejeezus out of the kids who reside there. The goal is to frighten the children into working and studying hard and int making sure they obey their parents. Parents, or extended family members, “protect” the children from the namahage by clutching them or chasing down the namahage who sometimes bodily carry off the kids (at least as far as the outside stoop).
Once the kids have been thoroughly chastened, the youngsters serve the namahage a special meal and a serving of sake. I never once saw any of the namahage in the videos partake of the food but they all tipped up their masks to down the alcohol! (Tohoku gets cold in the winter, remember. 😉 )
The museum has at least 50-75 lifelike namahage in its main hall, each sporting masks reflective of the region in which they were created. For a peninsula the size of Oga, there is a striking diversity in the masks. Make sure you devote enough time to this final section to check out the various costumes.
The Namahage Museum is open every day of the year, from 8h30 to 17h00. Admission is ¥500. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get there, as the nearest station (Hadachi, on the JR Oga line from Akita) is a 20 minute taxi ride away. There is no bus. But if you are making the trek to the Oga Peninsula, it’s worth renting a car to really take advantage of the coastal byways.