Walking around Nozawa Onsen village, you might start to wonder what’s up with all the statues. It seems like everywhere you turn, you’re met by two crudely drawn faces upon wooden poles. Though they look a little intense, they are actually the guardian spirits of this mountain village and mean you no harm. As it turns out, these Nozawa Onsen statues, called dosojin, are as interesting as they are ubiquitous, and have their own celebratory festival to boot.   

Who, or what, is a Dosojin? 

Dosojin [road ancestor kami] is actually an umbrella name for a shinto guardian spirit who offers protection to travellers, pilgrims, villagers and people in transitional phases. Though it’s a shinto belief, dosojin is thought to have started with Jizo, after Buddhism arrived in Japan. Though Jizo is probably the best known, there are a few other popular dosojin including “Sae no kami”, “Chimata-no-kami” and “Bato Kannon”, each offering their own unique brand of protection. Dosojin are represented in many forms from stone statues to rock piles, poles and even genitals. But here in Nozawa Onsen, they take the unique form of a human couple. 

The ugly couple 

After seeing statues of so many mythical gods, demons and anthropomorphic animals around Japan, it actually comes as a bit of a surprise to see humans. Especially ones that look quite so striking. Though they all have their own unique touches, you can count on the Nozawa Onsen dosojin to feature big eyes, a large nose, full lips and dark, luscious hair.

This may sound appealing, but the town’s literature explains that the pair in the folk tale were actually considered unattractive and thus, unlucky in love. Apparently, inner beauty only got them so far. Thankfully, this folk tale has a happy ending: once the two kindred mugs found one another, they were soon married, brought a baby boy into the world and presumably lived happily ever after. Their luck in marriage and childbirth led these dosojin to be considered gods of a healthy marriage and healthy children. For this reason, most families in Nozawa Onsen will have their own set of handmade Dosojin dolls at home and will pray to honour their children, bring fertility and ensure marital bliss.

Dosojin statues at the Tourist Information Center

The Nozawa Onsen dosojin statues

The Nozawa Onsen dosojin statues can be found outside of homes, businesses and even on the outskirts of town where they’re stationed in order to protect the village from danger. As each one is presumably made by a different person, the size, shape and design vary, making it a fun game to find your favourite. 

Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival 

It’s clear to see that dosojin are popular folk figures in Nozawa Onsen and all that love comes to a head every year on January 15th for the Dosojin Fire Festival. This annual event is the biggest on the village calendar and one of Japan’s top three fire festivals. It celebrates the birth of a family’s first child, blesses marriages and even exercises yokai (evil spirits/demons). However, men aged 25 and 42 (the most unlucky ages for men) are also said to get good fortune from the event.

In Autumn, specially selected trees are felled in the hills and collected a few months later by the 25 and 42-year-olds. A ten-meter tall shrine pavilion is then constructed without the use of a single nail. On the night, the 42-year-olds climb on top of it, while the 25-year-olds stand around its base, guarding the tinderbox against the bonfire happy villagers. For a few hours, villagers try desperately to set the pavilion on fire while the men work hard to extinguish the flames. Eventually, the men leave the structure and everyone enjoys watching it go up in flames. 

If you’re looking for a charming mountain destination with fresh air, free onsen and winter sports, Nozawa Onsen is an ideal choice. Not only is it relaxing and fun, but you can enjoy living under the protection of these famous Nozawa Onsen statues for as long as you stay.  

Post by Japan Journeys.