September 5, 2019

The Oga Peninsula’s Namahage

Akita's rural Oga Peninsula is home to a unique take on oni called the Namahage. These ogres terrify people into getting their act together.

A statue of a Namahage at the entrance to Oga Onsen on Akita Prefecture's Oga Peninsula

As those intrepid adventurers who have braved the journey already know, northern Japan is a wonder unto itself. This final frontier is home to an amazing assortment of rich culture and local folklore. Of the north’s allures though, perhaps nothing is more noteworthy than Akita Prefecture’s fearsome Namahage. Centered in and around the Oga Peninsula, the Namahage have played a vital role over the years in the development of this domain’s customs and conventions. Moreover, the Nahamage were also recently included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2018. If you’re looking for a novel off the beaten path adventure, I cannot more highly recommend that you follow in my footsteps and make the trek up here.

Before getting too deep into the logistics of visiting the Oga Peninsula, allow me to first explain what exactly a Namahage is for those not in the know. Put most succinctly, these frightful horrors are actually thought to be the local’s benevolent benefactors. Essentially, the Namahage perform the role of terrorizing the lazy into getting their act together. Once every year, these hellions stalk from house to house on the prowl for lethargic loafers who haven’t been pulling their weight. While the Namahage’s annual hunt for the halfhearted originally coincided with the first full moon of the new year, nowadays their visits take place on the Western calendar’s New Year’s Eve.

Now, the reasons why the Namahage have it out for the listless are quite intriguing. You see, northern Japan is subject to extremely harsh winters. To survive in such conditions, it was absolutely critical that all members of a village contribute what they could. A few deadbeat do-nothings could easily spell disaster for the rest of the community. The culture of the Namahage likely emerged in the days of yesteryear as a ritual to combat slackers and idlers. In fact, the very root of the word Namahage is thought to have a connection to the name of a rash-like condition called namomi which is caused by overexposure to the hearth. The Namahage would use their gruesome cleavers to peel these heat blisters from those lazing about by the fire. Accordingly, the term Namahage is generally believed to be derived from this condition.

By the way, if you had to classify the Namahage, they would fall into the category of Oni, a type of creature somewhat analogous to the ogre in Western mythos. Still, this isn’t entirely accurate, at least insomuch as the locals of the Oga Peninsula see it. Rather than think of the Namahage as Oni, the brutes are actually instead considered to be sacred deities up there. Coincidentally, this venerating of the demonic bears a striking resemblance to the Kunisaki Peninsula’s Shujo Onie Festival. Like with the Oga Peninsula, this area down in Oita Prefecture also believed that the Oni were benefactors and held an annual celebration to honor them.

No one is sure of the exact origins of the Namahage. Some accounts say that the Emperor Wu of Han came to Japan from China bringing five demonic compatriots with him. These devils set up their base on the two highest peaks on the Oga Peninsula and went on to ravage the surrounding countryside. Rankled by having their women and crops stolen, the locals made a wager with the brutes. If the oni could build a set of one-thousand stairs from the shoreline to the top of the highest peak in a single night, they could have all the young girls they desired. Should they fail though, the monsters would need to change their ways. Just as the beasts were carrying up the final stone step, a wryly villager mimicked a rooster which the ogres took as evidence of their failure.

One other interesting tale that I have seen recounted oddly claims that the Namahage are actually a band of foreign sailors who washed up on the shores of the Oga Peninsula. As frightening as an English speaking Westerner must present to a countryside dwelling Japanese, I’m of the mind that there must be some truth to this anecdote. Likely, sometime over the course of the Oga Peninsula’s history, a ship did wash up here and the overseas strangers somehow got amalgamated into the legends of the Namahage. Well, either that or some local English teachers had too many Strong Zeros one night and went on a wild rampage. You never do know…

Getting to the Akita & Oga Peninsula

The JR Oga Line bound for Akita Prefecture’s Oga Peninsula

Let’s put the tales about the Namahage on the back burner for a second and cover some logistics. Unfortunately, reaching the Oga Peninsula isn’t exactly what one would call a walk in the park. Even for experienced travelers like myself, navigating your way this far off the beaten path takes some serious chops. For starters, know that the Oga Peninsula and the Namahage are just not something that you can experience in a mere day. You’re going to need to overnight somewhere but luckily, this area is home to some great hotsprings. As such, the lodging requirement is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise if you’re not averse to public bathing.

Given the rural nature of the Oga Peninsula, there’s not many options for hotels outside of the Oga Onsen area. Luckily, you’ll find a wide collection of traditional ryokan here to stay in. What’s more, many lodgings will offer to pick you up at Oga Station which eliminates a seriously major headache for all travelers who don’t plan to make use of a rental car. In this remote region, your only options for public transportation are extremely infrequent buses. Rather than rely on these, I’d recommend you to rent a car if you can but the trip is still feasible without one. Just know that you’re going to need to make use of the aforementioned hotel pickup service if you don’t want to pay an extremely hefty taxi fee.

If you’re an early bird, you could also potentially spend the night in Akita city and then take the first train up to the Oga Peninsula. The only issue with this is that you’re dependant on the buses to get around. Oga Station is very, very far from the main attractions on the peninsula. Moreover, by opting to do things this way, you miss out on the chance to savor all the local specialties that traditional Japanese inns typically serve for dinner. As such, I’m of the mind that it would be a better option if you instead plan on overnighting at an Oga Onsen and then enjoying what the area has to offer on the following day. If you’re driving though, you’ll have a lot more freedom as you won’t be confined by the taxi prices and the limits of the poor transportation network.

As for the journey to the Oga Peninsula itself, know that you’ll need to either take the bullet train up or fly into Akita Prefecture. The former is probably more cost effective for JR Rail Pass holders whereas the latter is far more expedient. The choice is up to you but if you opt for the train, be sure to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service as departures aren’t as frequent as with bullet trains bound for Kyoto and Osaka. Know that due to the mountainous terrain, the trip up to Akita will take you a solid four hours or so.

Once you’re in Akita, you’ll need to make your way over to Oga Station via the JR Oga Line. This ride will take approximately another sixty minutes so be sure to also budget for this time as well. Given that there are very infrequent trains to this area of the prefecture, you’d actually do well to get into Akita a few hours early. While you wait for the next departure, you can enjoy a few hours exploring what the city has to offer before getting on your train. Many of the major attractions in Akita city are located only a few minutes away which makes this a convenient add on to the rest of the adventure.

The Oga Peninsula’ Namahage Museum

A manikin dressed as a Namahage wields a knife on Akita Prefecture’s Oga Peninsula

By far, the main attraction for the region is the Namahage Museum. After all, unless you’re visiting the Oga Peninsula during the dead of winter, you’re not going to see the ogres in action. To ensure that Namahage culture is accessible to all, the powers that be have put together two splendid facilities. The first of these, the Namahage Museum, explains the basics of the Namahage and showcases a number of original masks from over sixty districts within the Oga Peninsula. Additionally, you’ll also find a ten minute long video presentation featuring of the role of the Namahage as well as a zone where you can don their savage looking garbs. Trust me when I say that it beats any other #OOTD shot that you are considering posting to Instagram.

Next to the Namahage Museum you’ll find the second allure, the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum. Here, you can see a re-enactment of a typical Namahage home visit as it would have historically occurred. A representative from the institution will play the role of a head of a household. During the performance, two ferocious Namahage will enter the home searching for the lazy residents. After they scour the property (which is a hundred-year-old historic house by the way) for any hiding sloths, the two horrors will be placated by food and drink before promising to come again. Note that performances are held everyday of the week from April to November but only on Saturdays and Sundays from December through March.

Now, here I need to caution readers who have small children. While the Namahage might not look as terrifying to adults who have a firm grasp of what’s real and what is not. Alas, this isn’t the case with young children who are likely to be frightened beyond all belief to the point where they break down in tears. If you’re not into tormenting toddlers, it might be best to leave the traumatizing of children to the locals during the actual annual Namahage celebration. Though it didn’t happen during my visit, I’ve read that the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum has actually had to remove screaming children and their caretakers in the past.

In addition to the aforementioned museums, nearby you’ll also find Shinzan Shrine which honors one of the two main peaks on the Oga Peninsula. Known as Shinzan Shrine, you’ll find it a bit further past the Namahage Museum at the end of a small cul de sac. Like with so many other locations of mountain worship, the shrine is basically dripping with evidence of the syncretic union between Buddhism and Shinto. Note that Shinzan Shrine is actually the starting point for a trail through the crags. Apparently, mountain ascetics from long ago would make the 11 kilometer trek every day. Talk about having a grueling commute!

There’s Still More to Oga Peninsula

A lone hydrangea at Unsho-ji on Akita Prefecture’s Oga Peninsula

In addition to Oga Onsen and the Namahage museum, there’s a number of other alluring attractions strewn about the Oga Peninsula. Though most of them will require the use of a taxi or rental car to get to, they are most definitely worth the investment. As always, I’ll include links to Google Maps so that you, the reader, can have a better sense of where these are located.

  • Unsho-ji Temple
    Pictured above, this otherwise nondescript temple belies a truly beautiful secret. You see, the entire grounds are blanketed in hydrangeas that come alive with vibrant hues in June. When I visited in August, there were sadly only a few remaining survivors but they were still a sight to behold.
  • Akagami Shrine Goshado
    This set of five shrine halls in a row sits at the top of 999 stairs (about 180 meters up Mt. Honzan). The structures are dedicated to the five demons that the Emperor Wu of Han brought with him from China. As such, it is integrally tied to the origins of the Namahage.
  • Onga Namahage Taiko
    This group of performers are all locals from the Oga Peninsula. They’ve come together to share their love of taiko (traditional Japanese drumming) and have adopted the likeness of the Namahage to add additional flair to their shows. You can catch them in action at the Onsen Community House Gofu.
  • Nyudozaki Sunsets
    Located only about ten minutes away from Oga Onsen by car, this place is home to one of the most majestic sunsets in Japan. Between the seemingly infinite expanse of the ocean and the jagged rocks that line the Oga Peninsula’s western shores, this site feels like it’s ripped right from the pages of a fairytale. It’s also home to a quaint picturesque lighthouse too.
  • Godzilla Rock
    This rock bears a striking likeness to the monster of movie legend from which it gets its name. Though I didn’t opt to visit in person due to time constraints, I’ve read that the best time to visit is at sunset. I’d imagine that at other periods throughout the day, it’s simply not worth the journey.
  • Oga Aquarium GAO
    This is another attraction that I decided to skip so I can’t comment from a first hand experience. That said, the aquarium is very well promoted; its resident polar bear is prominently featured on all of its marketing material. From what I can gather, the aquarium is home to over 2,000 aquatic animals along with penguins, seals, etc. Consider visiting if these places are your shtick.

Until next time folks, happy travels and be sure to get off that overly worn beaten path during your next visit to Japan!