Red sparks dance against the jet black sky as a priest strikes a slow, steady beat on a taiko drum during the Sohei Matsuri in Yunoyama Onsen. The festival commemorates the courageous Tendai Buddhist monks who fought against the feudal system and their samurai for nearly 760 years, until Oda Nobunaga invaded in 1568 and burned the temple to the ground. Particularly magnificent is the sight of the warrior monks carrying the mikoshi around the onsen town with burning torches. There are drum performances and stalls selling hot sake and festival treats.
Yunoyama Onsen in Mie Prefecture is a great stop off between Kyoto and Nagoya. Visitors can enjoy strolling through the hot spring town, a soak in one of the rejuvenating onsens or exploring nearby Mt. Gozaisho, a beautiful 1,212-meter peak in the Suzuka Range. You can take the Gozaisho Ropeway up to the park, ski resort and hiking trails at the summit.
Getting There: Yunoyama Onsen is best reached by bus or taxi from Yunoyama Onsen Station on the Kintetsu Line.
Winter Fire Festivals
Japanese fire festivals take place throughout the year, but some of the most exciting ones are held in winter to usher in the new year, ward off evil spirits and ask the gods for health and wealth. Witness this fantastic tradition up close (but not too close!).
Jan. 7: Oniyo Fire Festival
This 1,600-year-old festival is held to drive away evil spirits. Men clad in loincloths wield six enormous torches around the shrine grounds. Onlookers are said to be blessed with good luck if embers or ash from the torches fall on them.
Where: Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine, Fukuoka
Jan. 14: Donto Matsuri
Locals bring traditional New Year decorations such as pine branches, sacred ropes and daruma to burn for good luck in the new year.
Where: Sendai City, Miyagi
Jan. 15: Dosojin Fire Festival
Local men of a certain age have a duty to defend a seven-meter wooden shaden (shrine) from villagers attacking it with burning torches. It gets more frenzied as the evening progresses until everything goes up in flames.
Where: Nozawa Onsen Village, Nagano
Jan. 25: Wakakusa Yamayaki
This festival starts off with a bonfire at the base of Mt. Wakakusayama and fireworks. Afterwards, the fire is used to set grass on the mountainside alight. It takes around an hour for the fire to spread all across the mountain.
Where: Mt. Wakakusayama, Nara
Feb. 6: Oto Festival
About 2,000 men dressed in white race down the steep stone stairs of Kamikura Shrine while wielding torches. It is said that this procession resembles a descending dragon.
Where: Kamikura Shrine, Wakayama
Feb. 13-14: Hiburiki Kamakura Fire Waving Festival
This festival was originally a purification ritual to guard the villagers from sickness and famine. Amidst a snowy landscape, locals hold a rope attached to a blazing bag of charcoal and swing it in a wide circle around their bodies.
Where: Senboku City, Akita