cabinet of wonders: Namahage demon sweets in Akita


I picked up a few packs of these Namahage (生剥) demon sweets while I was in Akita for a conference.  In Akita Prefecture, especially in the Oga Peninsula area, Namahage appear on New Year’s Eve and make their visits to local houses where they scare the children and accept handouts of the local sake.  Here’s a great description of the festival from Hideo Haga’s 1970 book, Japanese Folk Festivals Illustrated:

In Japan kami [deities] visit villages at each seasonal festival.  Many celebrations are held for kami who visit between the last day of the year and the dawn of the 1st Day.  On the Oga peninsula in Akita red and blue demons come to farmhouses.  The demons groan frightfully, pound on the door, and enter, shouting, “Are there any spoilt cry-babies or lazy brides here?”  Then they search the house.  Dressed in his best, the farmer greets them and declares there are no spoilt cry-babies nor lazy brides.  He serves them sake [rice wine] and food.  After the refreshments the demons go next door.

Since it wasn’t New Year’s Eve, I didn’t get a chance to see the Namahage running around pounding on doors, getting drunk, and making the children cry.  However, I did get to take home a couple of packs of these traditional demon-faced sweets, which are simply made up of grain and sweetener, formed into a hard cake.  The flavor is kind of like a delicious cereal, perhaps like Weetabix if it came pre-sweetened and was hardened into the form of a toothsome miniature biscuit.

Although it wasn’t New Year’s Eve, some friends and I did end up encountering this pair of Namahage in the streets of Akita city after downing plenty of Akita nihonshu (日本酒, i.e. “sake”) at a local izakaya.  I think that they were there to promote Akita culture and crafts to visiting tourists who had come to Akita for the long weekend, but it’s a bit hard to be sure since I’m not very fluent in demon, as it turns out.

I’d love to come back to Akita for the New Year celebrations and run around drunk and loony in the snowy night with demons, get a very mild case of frostbite in the big toe on my left foot, spend a few days recovering in a warm farmhouse with a lazy bride, and, once recovered, join the Namahage in a bit of wild taiko drumming.

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