Every year on January 7th, a blazing fire cuts through the evening darkness at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. A group of men dressed in colored robes lift massive fans to stoke a fire and send smoke into the air. Another group bashes into the walls of a wooden building to break it down. What is going on you ask? This is Fukuoka’s Onisube festival!
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What is the Onisube Festival?
On the 7th day of the New Year, a fire festival is held at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan. This festival is called Onisube, （鬼すべ) and is a traditional festival to exorcise demons and welcome good spirits into the new year.
The Onisube Festival has been deemed an Intangible Folk Cultural Asset by Fukuoka Prefecture and is a major Fire Festival in Japan. Watch this video to see what it is like!
Location: Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (From central Fukuoka, take the Nishitetsu Train line to Dazaifu Station then walk along the main road to the shrine). The main event takes place a short walk away at the Onisube Do Hall.
Date: January 7th of each year
Time: Main event: 9 pm. Processions start a couple of hours beforehand
What to Bring: Warm gloves, hat, good walking shoes (it can be muddy and slippery), and camera equipment.
Since this event happens later in the evening, most of the shops leading up to the shrine are closed. A few shops that sell Dazaifu’s famous treat, umegae mochi, are still open though, so stop by if you are looking for a little snack!
As you walk towards the main shrine, you may encounter groups of festival participants proceeding down the road chanting Oni-ja! Oni-ja! Which means “It’s a demon!”
The participants wear clothing in one of three colors: yellow, blue, or red, and on their heads, they wear bands of twisted straw. Some carry Japanese paper lanterns while others hold fans adorned with the symbol of Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine.
Dazaifu Tenmangu’s main hall is open during the festival so you can enter to give your prayers and buy good luck amulets and fortunes for the new year.
Outside of the main hall in the courtyard, a group gathers to see bundles of wood that have been lit with a sacred fire. This is also where participants are blessed by the priest before continuing on to the main festival grounds.
The main action of the Onisube festival takes place a short walk from the courtyard at Onisube Do Hall. At the hall, there is a field and a small wooden building. In front of the building are piles of pine needles and hay waiting to be lit.
Find your viewing space around the field or on the sloped hill nearby. Come early or you won’t be able to see through the crowds!
The festival participants enter the field with blazing bundles and in the first few minutes, run around slamming the firey poles into the other groups. (Watch this video to see the action!) I was quite surprised at how dangerous this seemed but was glad that no one got hurt.
At 9 pm, the massive haystack is lit, sending bright, red flames into the air. A group of exorcists fans the flames to drive billows of smoke into the wooden building, the place where the demons are thought to be residing.
A different group is tasked with protecting the demons and smashes the walls of the wooden structure to release the smoke. The steady pounding on the walls and the thud of the fans as they hit the ground fill the air with an eerie chill.
Eventually, the exorcists succeed in smoking out the demons and capturing them which symbolizes the end of the purification process and the beginning of good luck for the new year.
By the end of the night, what was once a roaring fire of light and smoke is all but depleted. The Onisube festival is complete! Happy New Year everyone!
Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of Fukuoka’s most popular shrines to visit. It is easily accessible and quite beautiful to see, especially in the early spring when the plum blossoms are at their peak. Read about Dazaifu’s plum season here.
If you want to learn more about visiting Dazaifu Tenmangu, you can check out this blog post or the video below.
Wondering where else to visit in Fukuoka? Check out these places next!
- Winter Oyster Huts in Itoshima – A Kyushu Specialty – If you are in Fukuoka in the winter, check out Itoshima’s famous oyster huts. A must for seafood lovers.
- Spring and Summer Flower Guide: Fukuoka, Japan – Fukuoka is filled with lots of seasonal flowers. See where to visit at any time of the year.