Ancient local festivals are conserved and promoted
in the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark
Located in the snowy yukiguni region of Japan, the local communities throughout the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark have developed unique adaptations of the Japanese New Year’s festival known as Sai no Kami. Also called Dondoyaki and Sagicho, Sai no Kami festivals occur throughout Japan, centered on January 15th. These festivals are transmitted from generation to generation within small, close-knit communities, so the festival’s form and celebrations can vary wildly from region to region.
The Sai no Kami pyre burns in Itoigawa Geopark’s Nechi District
In the traditional Japanese belief system, many religious ornaments, including New Year’s decorations, can only be used once before they have to be replaced. The Sai no Kami festival is a way to dispose of these ornaments and talismans. Communities come together in the beginning of the New Year to erect a large pyre of straw, bamboo, and wood. They place their used ornaments in this pyre and it is lit in a massive fiery display.
Brightly-painted men fight over bamboo poles in Oumi (L), while fiery torches are swung in Hayakawa (R)
Each region celebrates Sai no Kami a different way. The pyre may be large or small; there may be more than one. Some regions tie the pyre in special ways so as it burns the branches burst like fireworks. In the Oumi District, men paint their faces and fight over the bamboo in a tug-of-war-like display. People enjoy sake, fish, squid, and other foods and drinks together, strengthening the bonds that have kept these communities together for centuries.
Decorations adorn the pyre in Itoigawa Geopark’s Maki District
In the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, over 60 communities continue to hold a Sai no Kami festival, but many of these communities are facing an aging population and a shortage of children. The preparation that goes into the Sai no Kami is difficult as trees and bamboo must be cut from the mountains and pulled to the festival ground. Without outside help, many of these unique festivals may disappear entirely, their unique character lost forever.
To help preserve these cultural heritages for the future, the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark is working with these local communities to invite tourists and visitors to participate in Sai no Kami. We have created a webpage introducing the event and opportunities for outside visitors to participate.
For more information, please visit the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark Sai no Kami Homepage: