The Goshado Akagami shrine and where the Namahage live

The Oga peninsula stretches west from the coast of Akita prefecture into the sea of Japan and is home of the namahage (生剥 folkloric demons of the Oga peninsula). Namahage are frightening creatures and often referred to as ogres or demons but actually they’re toshigami (年神 new year gods) who annually visit the people of Oga.
Legend has it that they originally were demonic servants of emperor Wu from the Han dynasty who came to Oga from China about 2000 years ago. While hardworking and loyal these oni, as they are most commonly called in Japanese, were granted one free day a year where they went on a rampage in the village and stole people and crops. The villagers who were fed up with the ogres came up with a seemingly unaccomplishable task where the ogres would be granted a woman of the village every year if they could set a thousand stone steps to the local mountain shrine in one night.

The 999 steps leading through the forest to the Akagami Goshado shrine

As the people of Oga realized that the ogres had a fair chance of succeeding with the task they had been assigned with, before the last step could be set they had the village fool imitate the crowing of a morning rooster to trick the ogres into believing it was already morning and that they had failed to finish the thousand steps on time. Enraged and mortified to have lost the bet the ogres fled into the mountains and were never to be seen again.
There are different theories regarding the origin of namahage and some people think they were mountain ascetics or just people coming from abroad.
Ever since the Edo period about two hundred years ago, on New Year’s eve (traditionally in early February) men of the various villages dressed as namahage with terrifying masks and straw garments go from house to house shouting loudly “Are there any crybabies here? Any lazy ones?”. To appease the namahage people offer sake and food as the namahage are not only said to remind people to work hard and not be lazy and to encourage children to be obedient but also to bring protection and good harvest from the mountains and sea. Jiji is the red-faced namahage and Baba is the blue-faced counterpart holding a debabōchō (出刃包丁), a large, pointed carving knife. Some namahage may carry gohei (御幣), a sacred wooden wand with plated paper streamers manifesting their status as a shintō god.



The Akagami jinja is made of five consecutive shrines, the Goshado (五社堂 five main halls)

Namahage comes from the combination of the words “namomi” (fire rash or blister) and “hagi” (剥く to peel off) into “namomihagi” which actually means “peeling off blisters” and eventually became namahage in Akita dialect. Fire rashes and blisters occurred during winter especially on hands and feet while sitting around the open hearth doing nothing. By visiting once a year, the namahage who despise laziness make sure that the people of Oga stay diligent. If they discover any namomi the blisters are removed from hands and feet of lazy people with the debabōchō. As horrifying as they may look and sound, the namahage are not evil as such, as they are kami of the new year’s eve and exile evil but their fierce appearance is made use of by the parents to scare children into being obedient. The grandparents may defend the children in front of the namahage by saying that they’re actually good children and that they didn’t need to be carried off to the mountains.
Namahage was designated as a ‘national important intangible folk cultural asset’ in 1978.

The Akagami Goshado (赤神神社五社堂) was build in the middle of the Edo period in 1710 and enshrines five oni which are said to be parents with three children. While climbing the 999 steps, which lead to the Goshado I couldn’t help but feeling like in a scene from lord of the rings. As so often during those short winter days the prevailing colors were different shades of grey with occasional silver shimmering of the tree’s barks and rain washed wood of the shrine.

Torii overlooking the sea of Japan and Oga coastline

The Chorakuji (長楽寺) is a Buddhist temple at the foot of the mountain of Akagami Goshado which is hard to miss if you’re headed for the Goshado. It has a beautiful little garden overlooking the sea of Japan. I’m not completely sure why I find temples so much less exciting than shrines but maybe shrines are just more exotic to me because Buddhist temples can be found in many other countries of the world while the striking red torii of shintō shrines are distinctively Japanese. Maybe it’s also because my favorite color of all time is red and because shrines are often raised in geographically interesting places with strange nature around.

I found this little comic here: click while browsing and thought that it depicts how namahage are incorporated and perceived in modern everyday life. Instead of getting fire rashes from sitting around an irori (囲炉裏 sunken hearth) the blisters of today come from staying in front of the stove for too long either way will result in feeling guilty.
If the namahage peaked your interest or if you’re planning on visiting Oga, this website in English of the Oga board of education may be helpful to you:

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