Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Festival
This is one of the most famous and definitely most exciting winter festivals in Japan. Although it is not held in Matsumoto, it is not too far away. It is incredible and I think anyone in Matsumoto or interested in coming to Matsumoto should take advantage of our proximity to all this madness.
Excessive sake drinking gets it all started and keeps it going. Last year I went after work and arrived quite late but was immediately greeted by old men with big bamboo buckets of sake more then eager to share.
Once everyone is good and sauced the flaming bundles come out into the street. This procession starts with young boys and small bundles starting small fires in the 18 meter wood shrine in the center of the crowd. Meanwhile, forty-two year old men sit on top of the shrine singing and chanting and twenty-five year old men defend the base from the torch-bearing villagers trying to burn the whole thing down. (both ages are concidered unlucky in Japan)
Over about an hour the flaming bundles get bigger and bigger and the bearers more and more inebriated as they walk through the crowd to the shrine. Last year there were so many people that policemen had to hold back the crowds that swayed back and forth towards the torches. The young men at the shrine taunted the touch bearers held on to ropes to stay vertical. The encounters between the two groups gets more and more heated and there are literally sparks flying everywhere. Finally the battle comes to an end, the older guys come down, the whole thing goes up in flames, and the crowd retreats cheering.