If you think Krampus is the only tradition involving frightening figures teaching children to be good people, think again! On the peninsula of Oga on the main island of Honshu in Japan, there are the terrifying Namahage, who come in search of troublesome children and… uh… lazy wives to bring good fortune to the households for the coming year. Join me on a journey into their world, won’t you?
What Are Namahage?
Namahage look like demons, and some are, but some aren’t, as they are celestial messengers of the gods. Apparently, the Shinzan area’s Namahage don’t have horns, signaling their celestial origins. They note at the Namahage Museum in Oga that although they look like demons, they are treated like local deities. They come from the mountains to visit households and spread a little bit of their… charms.
Namahage wear oni, or demon, masks and straw outfits that are separated into two parts: a top and a bottom. They also wear woven slippers or sandals to move around in. Every year, the costumes are made by hand for that year’s visits. The masks vary from region to region and are made from local materials. The sheer number of variations can be overwhelming and fascinating: They truly come in all shapes and sizes!
The Origin of Namahage
The actual origin of the Namahage has several different explanations.
The first story involves emperor Han Wu Ti bringing the demons to the local region, ravaging the area and getting into a bet with the local villagers only to be outwitted by them. This seems to be the most common story found online at sites like GaijinPot.
The second story involves the Namahage actually being a group of shipwrecked foreigners. The theory is that the Namahage were shipwrecked Russians who appeared on the Oga coast. The red hair, eyebrows, seaweed on their clothes, and the crying out in a loud, foreign language lead the locals to believe that they were demons. It is said that they stole from the village, not knowing how to communicate, which is maybe where the stealing of wives came from over the years. A bit more realistically grounded, to be certain.
The third idea is that the Namahage were actually strange-looking aesthetics known as Motoyama and Mayama by people living in Oga. Many people like these went into the mountains to train and work in the depths of the mountains. Because some of the visitors were warriors, the violent training inspired their likeness to be adopted for the Namahage. It makes sense, as the Namahage are mountain spirits and these men worked in the mountains.
Oga Namahage Museum and Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum
Getting out to the museum where you can see the tradition practiced year-round is a bit daunting if you don’t know how to proceed. There are a few options: First, you can call the museum and reserve a seat on the shuttle that will take you from Oga station to the museum. The fee is a flat 1000 yen per person and is a great way to get out there. There are also buses, but be aware they don’t run everyday, with Mondays seeming to be a regular day off for this form of transit. The last option, and the most expensive, is to reserve a taxi to take you up and down for the day. This is 3500 yen per person and should only be used as a last resort. We learned this the hard way, having to shell out a lot of money to get ourselves to the remote museum, having not known about the need for an advanced reservation to use the shuttle.
Once you get there, we recommend getting the combo ticket: This will allow you to see the Namahage performance (at the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum) and admission to the Oga Namahage Museum. It gets you the best value and seeing the actual performance a the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum is a must to truly understand and appreciate the tradition. They also have a Namahage Festival in February in the region, and the Namahage Rock Festival in July. Regardless of when you go, it’s a fascinating look at some truly eye-catching cultural heritage!