When I was a kid I always thought that the idea of Father Christmas bringing coal, instead of presents, to children that had been bad was pretty harsh. You couldn’t quite shake the idea that it COULD happen during the lead up to the big day. But here in this region of Japan they’ve taken the concept of manipulating kids to get them to behave themselves to a whole new level.
When it’s New Year here male family members dress up as the Namahage – masked demon faced shouting characters in straw outfits. They burst into the family home holding knives and wielding a book in which all the children’s misdeeds have been written. They give the kids a good telling off, sometimes dragging them around the floor, consume an offering of food and saki and then clear off. God knows how many children have been permanently traumatised by this over the course of hundreds of years.
After the morning’s bus ride we arrived at the Shinzan shrine and were immediately impressed at how calm and serene the setting was, nestled among the trees with stone steps leading up the hillside to the shrine buildings above. Like the Hindu temples we filmed in India they were very relaxed about what we could and couldn’t do, and were quite happy for Johny and I to dress up as schoolboys and scamper round the place singing a song about how scared we were of the approaching Namahage.
Our researcher Gavin and AFM Colin dressed up in some of the shrine’s costumes and performed a dance on the steps and chased us about a bit. But we also got to meet some of the priests indoors, dressed in some even bigger and scarier outfits. I’m not going to lie – when the sliding doors flew back and they came storming towards us shouting I was a little bit scared. Even our soundman Nat let out a yelp of fear. They dragged us up and down the floor a couple of times before very kindly dancing next to us for a bit, and by the time we were heading to our hotel we were feeling quite pleased to have got what should be a cracking song in the bag – about an absolutely bonkers Japanese tradition!