We Visit the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival
What do you do with your holiday decorations? Most likely, you just toss them out after the holidays, correct? Well, that doesn’t really work here in Japan. Many people decorate their homes and businesses as part of Oshogatsu, the traditional Japanese New Year. And at the end of the holiday period, the decorations get burned as part of the Matsutaki Matsuri. And the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival in Sendai is the oldest and most significant festival of its kind in Japan!
The Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival
The Matsutaki Festival at Osaki Hachimangu has a history of over 300 years. It is the biggest New Year countdown in all of Japan. This event is held to burn offerings of New Year’s decorations, ornaments, and old amulets. In other areas of Japan, this event is also known as “Sagicho” or ”Dondoyaki.”
On the evening of Jan 14th, New Year’s pine decorations and Shinto ropes, etc., are brought to the shrine by residents and businesses from all over Sendai and heaped into a massive pile at one corner of the shrine grounds. At sunset, this “Imibi” or “purifying fire” is lit by Shinto priests.
We celebrate Matsutaki Matsuri to see off the gods who visited each household and business during the new year. It is said the fire purifies the minds and bodies of those who come into contact with it. It supposedly also keeps their families safe and healthy for the year. A part of the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival is making offerings and pray at the actual shrine as well.
One aspect of the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival is a practice called ”Hadakamairi,” where naked pilgrims visit the shrine for Dontosai. This practice was already established by the middle of the Edo Period. It is said to have been started by sake brewers who visited the shrine to pray for the sake to be brewed as they made preparations in the intense cold.
Even now, thousands of pilgrims wearing a white towel around their heads and a white cloth around their waists, holding a piece of ”Fukumigami” paper in their mouths to refrain from small talk and with their left hand holding a paper lantern and their right hand holding a bell come to pay homage from all over the city. One starting point is Sendai Station, and the pilgrims make their way to Osaki Hachimangu through the downtown shopping arcades.
Our First Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival
Coco and I planned to visit the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival for some time. Last year we missed it; it was too soon after our arrival in Sendai. Now that we are all settled and celebrated our first traditional Japanese New Year, we needed to dispose of our Shime Kazari like everyone else. This year we also collected the decorations from our family home in Nakayama. We set out for the Dontosai Festival from there.
The oldest and biggest Matsutaki Matsuri in all of Japan!
Since the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival is the biggest in Japan, it attracts big crowds. Even Oka-Sama mentioned that we should not underestimate the number of people just because the festival fell on a Tuesday this year. We heeded all the advice. Since it was a relatively warm and pleasant afternoon for January, we set out on foot from Nakayama.
After a little while, we noticed other people heading in the same general direction, all carrying paper bags with Shime Kazari and other ornaments destined for the fire. Since we figured they knew the way better than we did, we decided to follow them. Soon we were part of a steady stream of people. There was a happy atmosphere in the air. We overheard people wondering how big the fire would be, and what to eat first. Matsuris in Japan always include food vendors!
Arriving at the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival
As the crowds gathered, police and traffic guards directed traffic, and we noticed many temporary parking lots for people arriving in cars. Oka-Sama was not kidding! By the time we arrived at Osaki Hachimangu, a huge crowd had already gathered. We came from the back, which made things a bit easier. The first thing we noticed as we entered the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival was a long row of food stalls. The crowds were relatively light, so we decided to grab a bite.
Thus fortified, we made our way to the fire area. Basically, we just followed the crowds heading in that general direction. Soon we saw the growing pile, by that time already about eight to ten feet tall. We fell in step with the crowd circling it and added our own offerings to the growing pile under the watchful eye of priests and firemen.
Time for Prayers
We headed down another row of food stalls, festively lit with many lanterns. By this time, many groups of Hadakamairi pilgrims were already patiently waiting to enter the shrine. We felt sorry for them; many of them were shivering in the cold night air. After offering our own prayers, asking the deities for good luck and fortune for ourselves and our loved ones, we headed back towards the fire.
The giant pyre had been lit by now, and flames could be seen shooting up in the air from a distance. With more and more pilgrims and visitors arriving, we were being swept along by the growing crowds. We came early on purpose; we were told the busiest time would be between 7pm and 9pm.
The Hadakamairi Pilgrims
Coco: I haven’t seen that many naked bodies in years!
As luck would have it, we got a prime spot close enough to the fire to feel the heat from the roaring flames. Even better, the Hadakamairi pilgrims passed right in front of us as they arrived at the fire. This gave us a great view of all the different groups. Each of the Hadakamairi groups circled the fire, adding their own offerings.
Lanterns and banners identified each group. Some of them were students, proudly proclaiming they had passed their exams. Other groups represented various businesses and organizations, including the city and Prefectural governments. We were excited to see my employer, Tohoku University, represented several times.
Many of the pilgrims seemed excited to have reached the end of their pilgrimage. The hot fire was only the beginning; we are sure they had visions of warm clothes and hot sake. As always at these traditional festivals, we were surprised at how many young people participated in the pilgrimage. One reason might be that it is harder for them to decline the offer to participate politely.
All Roads Lead to the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival
At least that is the way it seemed to us. The main entrance to the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival was jammed with arriving visitors and pilgrims. We left through a side gate and down a little side street. Once again, we simply followed the crowd. This time it was a group of pilgrims. Soon we arrived down on the main road, next to the main entrance to Osaki Hachimangu.
As far as the eye could see, the street was decorated with lanterns and packed with people. Arriving pilgrims and residents bringing their offerings filled the sidewalks on both sides. To accommodate all the pedestrians traffic lanes were closed, and guards directed pedestrians crossing the street.
Vendors sold food, and hot sake, to warm up the crowd. One enterprising store even sold complete outfits for pilgrims, just in case you decided at the last moment to form your own group. It all added to a very festive atmosphere.
As we headed towards home, we repeatedly had to make way for groups of pilgrims and residents. The Hadakamairi were easy to spot. The ringing bells and lit lanterns could be noticed from a long way off. Each group was led by guides with lit wands to keep them safe. Pedestrians politely made way for them. And tour buses were waiting for groups who had completed their pilgrimage. This scenario stretched on for a few kilometers!
We Had a Blast at the Dontosai Festival!
We both looked forward to the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival for a long time, and we were not disappointed. There is something about twenty to thirty-foot tall flames, lanterns, festive crowds, and street food that just appeals to us. As Coco said: I haven’t seen this many half-naked people in a long time!”
It was an enjoyable experience for both of us, and a fitting end to our first traditional New Year in Japan. We look forward to next year already! Now that we have experienced it once, we know what to expect next time. If you have the chance to experience the Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival yourself, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Tips for Osaki Hachimangu Dontosai Festival
- Dress warmly; you can only be near the fire for so long
- Avoid the crowds; the busiest times are from 7pm to 9pm
- Avoid driving; traffic near the shrine can be very congested
- Be patient; there can be long lines
- Bring your decorations in a paper bag or box, NO plastic!
Osaki Hachimangu Shrine
Address: 4 Chome-6-1 Hachiman, Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi 980-0871
If you would like to join us on a visit to Osaki Hachimangu or get a personal tour of Sendai, please feel free to contact us for rates and availability.