Japanese Festivals: Tsukioka Dondo Matsuri, Niigata 月岡温泉どんど祭り
Tsukioka Onsen Dondo Festival
To experience a unique winter festival in a small, welcoming town, travel to Tsukioka Onsen (Niigata Prefecture) for an exciting event, locally called the Dondo Matsuri, on February 19.
In freezing weather, about sixty young men and about a dozen young women will run through town before starting a bonfire with burning torches. Despite extreme cold, possibly snow, the men wear white, cotton loincloth-like garments only. The women don thin, colorful Japanese robes.
Besides enjoying this amazing spectacle, you can sample the local dishes, peruse a museum dedicated to a local sword maker who became a national living treasure, watch fireworks, stand in the snow next to a roaring bonfire, soak in hot springs and compete in the geta Olympics. It is a fun sports competition that probably exists only in Tsukioka.
Geta are the traditional wood-bottom clog like shoes that many traditional hot spring resort ryokans provide to guests. Geta are for strolling through gardens and old towns. You will hear a clomping sound when walking on stone roads or hard pavement.
The geta Olympics is a bit like the Olympic shot put event; athletes in both events try to send a projectile farther than other contestants. In the Tsukioka competition, the sports persons stand on one foot in a snowy field. They kick a geta that is worn on the other foot as far as possible. Judges record the distance traveled by each flying geta. Spectators cheer on all contestants, some of whom who fall in the snow or send getas out of bounds into the audience. It is a good laugh. This sports event starts at 3.00pm.
Also starting at 3pm is the mochitsukitaikai event. Cooks place steamy glutinous rice into a large, open wooden container. Attendees, two people at a time, take turns rhythmically swinging huge, heavy mallets until they pound the rice into a soft mass. When the rice is sticky and gooey, it becomes mochi, or rice cake. Balls of white mochi are dropped into bowls of a warm, sweet, red bean soup-like mixture called zoni. Eating a bowl of steaming zoni in the snow is a winter joy for many Japanese. In fact, zoni is a traditional New Year's dish.
You can also munch a wide variety of Japanese dishes sold at outdoor food stalls: sukiyaki, okonomiyaki, fried chicken, fried squid, and more. This year, festival organizers will prepare a stew made with beef from Murakami, a neighboring town. Murakami is famous in Niigata for beef and salmon. Locals claim that Murakami beef is as delicious as Japan's most famous beef, Kobe beef.
If you are still chilly after eating some hot food, meander around the tiny, comfortable town of Tsukioka. One of the best places to stroll is along a brick lane between Japanese-style hotels. In the middle of the hotels is a popular footbath. You cannot miss it. On winter nights, it becomes a gathering place for couples and families sitting around the long bath and chatting. Roll your pants above your knees, join them, and warm up.
Token Densyo Kan Amata Akitsugu Memorial Museum
Are you interested in exquisite Japanese swords? Local samurai sword maker, Amata Akitsugu, was awarded the nation's highest prizes for his sword-smithing skills. In 1997, the government designated him as a living national treasure. He passed away several years ago. But you can see his tools, other memorabilia, and some of his swords in Tsukioka Onsen. Named in his honor, the Token Densyo Kan Amata Akitsugu Memorial Museum is worth visiting. His swords are priceless treasures that are almost all locked away in shrines, private homes of wealthy collectors, and museums. Admission is free during the Dondo Matsuri.
At 5.15pm, the main event begins. The young men light their torches at the source of the town's hot mineral water and start running en masse through town. Photographers and onlookers, shouting in excitement, tail after them. The runners enter Carillon Park at 5.30pm. They stop and stand in formation with their torches burning brightly against the black night. Then they run toward two wooden and bamboo pillar-like structures filled with used geta and old amulets.
Each pillar has a large poster with words written on it. One message poster expresses hopes for many customers, good luck and happiness. The other poster voices hope for the coming of true love and the safety of family members. The runners shove their flaming torches inside, igniting the pillars into bonfires that flame higher than a three-story building.
It is a memorable spectacle: Scores of visitors, almost naked participants, and staff members are all transfixed by the energy and heat emitted by the bonfire. It crackles and sparks. The bonfire grows in size and intensity until the pillars crash to the snowy ground. At that point, the runners start to feel the cold, so festival workers splash them with buckets of hot water. Most attendees take their last photographs and then leave for celebratory feasts. It is a good time for you to try one of the local restaurants or return to a local hotel for more Niigata dishes as well as another hot bath.
Access - Getting to Tsukioka Onsen
Tsukioka Onsen is located on the outskirts of Shibata city. You can reach Tsukioka Onsen by bus from either Shibata Station or Toyosaka Station which are both along the Hakushin Line from Niigata city.
Getting to Niigata
Japan Railways (JR) Joetsu Shinkansen super-express from Tokyo (2 hours) to Niigata Station. Niigata Station Tel: 025 248 5211
Long-distance bus services from Ikebukuro and Shinjuku (Tokyo) to Niigata. Niigata also has bus links to Sendai, Kyoto, Nagoya (7 hours), and Osaka.
The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.
Japanese Bath Products
Purchase a range of wooden Japanese bath products made from the finest Japanese wood including original bath buckets, chairs and soap basins to give your bathroom that Japanese hot spring onsen feel.