A different kind of winter festival

Iwate has a long history – from festivals featuring ancient dancing and drumming traditions, to prehistoric civilization sites in the north, to centuries-old craftworks whose techniques have remained unchanged to this day, there’s something moving about how far Iwate’s culture stretches back. Oshu in particular is well-known for its historical places and events, especially the thousand-year-old festival of Sominsai.

Sominsai doesn’t have a proper, one-to-one English translation, so it’s better to just explain it. Essentially, it’s a festival held in January or February wherein participants, mostly men and boys in nothing but loincloths, secure good fortune for the coming year. (Non-participants are free to come and watch.) This is done by a gauntlet of purifying rituals: first, rinsing in an ice-cold river – this part features a chant of “Jasso! Joyasa!” which roughly means “banishment to evil” – then, climbing up on a sacred bonfire; lastly, scrambling for a lucky bag called “somin-bukuro” that is believed to bless the person who wins it with good luck for the year. All of this in the dead of winter, late at night, in Iwate, which can be a bitterly cold environment indeed.

Of course, as (near) naked festivals are not generally practiced in America, I had no idea what to expect, but was looking forward to observing a part of Oshu’s culture that has persisted for so long.

Various Iwate municipalities have similar events to Sominsai, but Oshu’s event at Kokuseki-ji Temple is one of the larger ones. As you can probably imagine, Kokuseki-ji Sominsai was canceled in 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns; it was held only as a prayer ceremony in 2022. Fortunately, I managed to go see part of this festival back in January 2020.

Lanterns carried by participants.

Because this festival happens in the dark, it’s hard to take high-quality photos or videos on a smartphone; the upshot is that it’s easier to remain in the moment, taking in the event.

The “Jasso! Joyasa!” call-and-response permeated the air, in an almost hypnotic way. The atmosphere is that of a primeval winter rite; you can really feel the thousand years this custom has been taking place. Watching the cycle of people entering and exiting the river to become purified can also provoke a pensive mood.

I think something like Sominsai is grounded in some intuitive and near-universal concepts. So many world religions have practices that create meaning from something painful or difficult, using it for a higher purpose. The forms these practices take may vary by culture or nationality, but ultimately we all fear death and disease, and use rituals to try to protect ourselves and those we care about. All sorts of cultures have adopted ideas like this, which is yet another reminder for me that, regardless of anything, people are much more alike than they are different.

Despite these musings, I don’t want it to sound like Sominsai is a grim ritual. Far from it – you can find booths selling ordinary Japanese festival fare such as yakisoba fried noodles; here and there you can see onlookers taking smiling selfies with participants. Said participants encourage each other and exude sincerely good cheer and camaraderie in the face of bitter cold, which is quite powerful to watch.

While the festival goes on until dawn of the following day, it’s not necessary to stay the whole time if you’re a spectator. I left around 1:00AM, if I recall correctly.

If you find yourself in Iwate in January or February or so, watching this festival unfold is an unforgettable experience. I hope that in the years to come, this festival can return in its full capacity, and provide onlookers and participants alike with new perspectives to carry into the New Year.

Info about Kokuseki-ji Temple:


17 Yamauchi, Kuroishi, Mizusawa, Oshu, Iwate, JAPAN

TEL: 0197-26-4168

FAX 0197-26- 4303

e-mail : info@kokusekiji.jp