DAYTIME: Two donko trains, first back to Akita City, then along the Oga line to Oga station on the Oga peninsula. Took non-stop sightseeing bus to Oga`s onsen resort. Stunning view from top of Mount Kanpu (lit. Cold wind mountain); the sea on three sides and rice fields and the dwarfed Lake Hachirogata on the other.
EVENING: Served sazae (turban shells) two nights in a row now; it’s the sea-snail eating season. Growing up I was led to believe seafood comes either battered or tinned, and that in all circumstances the dish comes unrecognisable from its original incarnation.
Turban shells however come pretty much as they were. They take at least an hour to eat: over 30 minutes to mentally prepare, then 30 minutes to coax the snail out of the shell using a cocktail stick.
LIVE EVENT: Sat awkwardly on the floor of a packed community centre wearing hotel dressing gown. First up on stage, the Namahage, mythical creatures from the mountains of Oga who come down to villages in mid-winter to terrify young children into behaving well for the following year. The Namahage festival is held every February; local men get drunk and dress up in the ogre-like Namahage costumes. I met a middle-aged man who was once carried away in a sack by Namahage when he was a youngster. He still hates them now.
Forty odd years ago, the traditional festival became a nationwide tourist attraction. `You can`t go to Oga and not see an ogre,` as the promotion campaign jingles goes. You do not even have to go to Oga anymore actually; there are plenty of Namahage themed sites elsewhere in Akita.
The large Namahage facemasks scare me: dark, menacing frowns painted onto red faces, horns, huge, bulbous noses and 4 teeth each pointing diagonally outwards.
Not all the kids were scared of the Namahage`s antics. Two 3-year-old girls were sat next to me wearing cotton yukata. They did not flinch when a Namahage came over on the warpath. Perhaps they were more scared of me.
At the halftime interval, the Namahage ogres beat a retreat into the mountains (Or took their masks off and congregated in the Little Japan snack bar round the corner), meanwhile the 300 or so holidaymakers left inside played a game of rock, paper, scissors for the grand prize of a small Oga Onsen bathtowel.
After the interval, a band of taiko drummers called Onga came on stage. Onga is the old name for the Oga peninsula. Onga members are all locals and amateurs; the band started up as an alternative to the dying bar trade in the resort; recently though their popularity has spread beyond the resort, they toured France last year.
5 bare-chested men and one black cotton-clad woman took the stage. Onga outshone the ogres, leaping about on stage, faces creased up in manic expressions, their teeth gnashing, a fantastic enthusiasm, each willing each other on, sharing smiles while they pounded away, taking it in turns to perform solos, all building to a frenetic climax when for a few moments, the lead drummer seemed to be furiously hammering an insolent nail into his drum.
(A toned-down version)