January 31, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Perfect Madness 

At Nozawa Onsen in the Japanese Alps, the skiing is insanely deep — but nowhere near as insane as the annual Dosojin Fire Festival

click to flip through (4) LESLIE ANTHONY - Shreddy, aim fire: Cortina's trees on a low-snow day.
  • Leslie Anthony
  • Shreddy, aim fire: Cortina's trees on a low-snow day.

This is what I remember: the monkeys keeping their distance. Plodding through the snow in single-file silence, like soldiers in winter.

Soon they were mere shadows in the forest, hunched grey phantoms glimpsed between trees. And we were alone again on our skis.

That's how Japan comes to you: in pictures snapped through windows and goggles, scenes so foreign to the senses that they are engraved instantly — with no clear context — to be sorted out later.

It usually starts in Tokyo, where everything opens your eyes. It's like landing in some arcade of the future, sights and sounds out of time, overwhelming. Before you even have time to absorb anything you're looking for a way out. A bus, a train, maybe a van full of skiers you happen to know. Then the laborious process of exiting the mega-city, faces pressed to the window, the nighttime madness of districts like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Rapongi flashing by like giant video games.

Waiting, waiting. It's what you do in Japan. Patience is a virtue. You let your mind take pictures. You have no choice and begin to understand how Zen works: you eventually arrive where you're going and find what you came for: snow. Here, the amount you find usually boggles the mind.

A warm island adrift in a cold ocean raked by Siberian winds, Japan comes by its atmospheric snowmaker honestly. This precipitation bonanza graces the steep terrain of the Japanese Alps and what is very likely the best tree-skiing in the world. The wide-open hardwood forests, with their quiet solitude and room to turn, are a potent draw for any powder-addled skier. We'd already spent a week being those people, buried to the shin, knee, thigh each snowy day.

Just when we thought it couldn't get any deeper we'd arrived in Nozawa Onsen amidst another dense snowfall. A small village built around the chaotic discourse of hot water bubbling from the Earth's volcanic skin, Nozawa offers the kind of cultural immersion required to understand and appreciate Japanese mountain tradition: historic architecture, regional foods like pickled nozawa (a local green vegetable), sake street vendors, snow-god shrines, fastidious guest houses, geothermal heating, hot-spring baths and even a foot-soaking trough in the village centre where you can doff your ski boots and kick back with a beer. Some of our group had disappeared into the town's maze of shops and open, steaming watercourses, but a couple of us couldn't resist heading up the unseen mountain. Though it was 3 p.m., already into the gloaming of a January dusk, we'd managed three bottomless runs that dropped off several kilometres of often knife-edged ridges into seemingly endless steep, north-trending chutes and valleys. In a stand of trees near the bottom of one I'd looked up to see a strange animal dolphining down the chute beside me. The kamoshika is a deer relative whose look and size is best described by a friend's riotously accurate moniker of pig-sheep-goat-fish-llama-dog. It made skiing with monkeys seem routine.

It had been waist-to-chest deep — with moments of snow breaking around our necks — and light enough to tunnel through. At this time of a day at a busy resort (and it was busy), it seemed insane. But nowhere near as insane as the annual Dosojin Fire Festival that took place that night.

The festival, dating to 1863, is held on January 15 every year to pray for a plentiful harvest, health, good fortune. An old belief in Japan dictates that the two most unlucky ages for men are 25 and 42. So local males of these ages — up to 100 of them — construct an 18-metre high beechwood shaden (shrine). The shrine is endowed with its own god by a Kosuge priest. Along with the shaden, several toro (lantern poles) are erected by families celebrating the birth of a first son; this year there were three. As the festival began, the 42 year-olds perched atop the shaden and the 25 year-olds stood guard at its base. Free saki was dredged from huge barrels in bamboo cups and passed around a surging crowd. By the time a cabal of torch-bearing villagers attempted to break through the young guards and ignite the shaden, thousands were drunk. The battle was dangerous and lively. Defenders tried to put out the fire by striking it with pine branches; punches were thrown, people slipped on ice and snow. The attack lasted an hour until, finally, the shaden and toro finally went up in huge balls of flame, conflagrations so dangerously molten they put Burning Man to shame.

Nothing could put out the fire. Not even the suddenly renewed snowfall that was accumulating on the smouldering remains. It seemed that the good-luck offering had worked — certainly for skiers. Tomorrow would be another insane powder day in Nozawa Onsen. Unfortunately, we'd be on our way home, but I'd be flipping through my mind-photos on the way back to Tokyo.

After all, I had a large album.

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