On January 13th 2018, a town less than an hour away from Yokohama was holding its annual Sagicho celebration, and given that I hadn’t really seen much ‘traditional Japan’ since I got here, I really wanted to go.
Oiso is located on the south coast of Kanagawa Prefecture and has a population of around 33,000 people. It’s way smaller than anywhere I’ve visited in Japan so far but that only makes it feel closer together. It’s definitely a change from the second largest city in the country.
When we got there our first stop was a temple a short walk from the station, where our tour guide showed us a video explaining the festival.
Oiso is traditionally a fishing town, and their local deity is Seino Kamisan, who acts as a guardian for travellers. Sagicho is a fire festival celebrating Seino Kamisan and is the last New Year’s event in the area, being held two weeks into the year. Sagicho has lasted over 400 years and has been officially recognised as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan. The highlight of Sagicho is Yanna-Goko, which is where nine bonfires (or Saito) representing each of the nine communities in Oiso are lit and everyone roasts dango over the open flames. It is believed that if you eat that dango, you will be protected from catching a cold.
Then, a traditional song is sung and men wearing loincloths drag a temporary shrine called a Karimiya into the water of Sagami Bay. Another group of loincloth-clad men pull it back towards the shore in a scene reminiscent of a game of tug-of-war. It is then hauled back onto the beach and towed to the appropriate shrine, where it’s customary to eat tofu.
After hearing about the celebration, next was a trip to Kitahama Beach where the Saito were ready and waiting to be lit. In the daylight, we were able to see all the little details, including last year’s daruma dolls with the second eye painted in. Anything from 2017 that was ready to be disposed of was added to the pile. From the top of the observation tower at one end of the beach, you could see all nine of the bonfires standing along the shoreline, so we all climbed up to take a look.
On the way to our next stop, we came across an Okariya, a little wooden hut that was built specifically for the Sagicho festival. Here, people come to pray and local children stay and keep watch, collecting donations of money. I was impressed that they were able to stay out in the cold for so long and before we left, I threw a few coins into the collection box.
Then we arrived at a community centre, where they held two workshops: one making dango and the other making kifuda. Dango are glutinous rice dumplings and as I said in this post, I grew to love them while studying in Fukuoka. We formed the dough into balls, making sure to make them the right size because if they’re too big they won’t boil properly and if they’re too small they get too soft.
We used the three colours usually associated with dango– white, green, and pink – and soon we had plates full of each one. They were put into a big pot to boil for a while and then we were able to eat them! They were served with mitarashi: a sweet glaze made with soy sauce.
Next was a kifuda workshop. Kifuda are lucky talismans made from wood with a brand seared onto one side. We were given a soldering iron to write our own message on the back and I chose to write my name in katakana. It was a little difficult because of the grains in the wood but thankfully we had a spare piece to practice on beforehand. I was given the branding iron to print the other side and I tried my best to put it right in the centre. The kifuda were finished with a piece of string through a hole in the top to wear around our necks during the rest of the festival.
We then left the community centre and made our way to another on the other side of town. Along the way, we made the pilgrimage to seven small shrines.
Once we arrived at the second community centre there was a meal ready for everyone. In true Japanese style, it was all local food, including mikan from a nearby orchard and a traditional soup made of fish and seaweed called isojiru.
We all finished eating and it was time to leave for the main event. We were each given a long bamboo stalk with a ring of dango threaded through the end and we returned to the beach in the darkness.
All nine fires were lit, and they burned fiercely against the inky black of the sea behind. The flames were easily a few feet taller than I am and they actually seemed a little bit intimidating. You could feel the heat from metres away, which was fortunate because it was hard to get close with all the people who surrounded the bonfire.
After a few tries, I found my way to the front, holding out my dango to be toasted. By this point the heat was so strong it almost felt overpowering, but I wasn’t complaining because it was still a night in the middle of January and any warmth was gladly appreciated. In fact, it was the warmest I’d been in weeks.
The traditional song was performed and the men dragged the Karimiya into the water.
Almost too soon, the crowd dispersed and the event was over. The remains of the bonfires lay smouldering in the sand, now less than a metre tall. It was now decidedly cold and the smell of wood smoke had permeated my clothes, but I didn’t mind. It was just great to be able to see more of the ‘old Japan’ and it was even better that we had chance to join in with a tradition that’s more than four centuries old.
I also really enjoyed being able to visit another part of the prefecture, and I’ll definitely try to see lots of other places in Kanagawa.
If you’re interested in Oiso and the Sagicho festival, please check out Oiso Daisuki Club, they were amazing!