Long time readers may have picked up on this by now but I really loathe covering Japanese festivals on this blog. Blasphemy right? I mean why would anyone be adverse to something so essential to the local culture? As it turns out, there’s a good reason for my madness. Put simply, by the time I’ve finished whipping up an article, the opportunity for you, the reader, to enjoy the annual celebration has long since past. Because of this, my post ends up amounting to little more than a humble brag. Sure, I can always recycle the piece the following year but there are so many other hidden gems that I could be exploring instead. As such, I often default to covering evergreen content that can be enjoyed time and again regardless of when one chooses to actually visit Japan.
Alas, every now and then there’s a festival that I come across that is simply too spectacular not to cover so I’ll be breaking protocol to take a look at one of these today. Known as the Shujo Onie, this mid-winter ritual will leave you awestruck and quivering in your boots (and not from the cold either). Should you find yourself in Oita Prefecture during the frigid month of February, you absolutely must add this event to your itinerary. Though an egregious oversimplification, the basic premise of the Shujo Onie is that the festival heralds the earthly incarnation of several Japanese demons. Trust me when I say this is a sight that will be etched in your mind for all eternity.
Now, you may be wondering why the hell the people of the Oita Prefecture celebrate and honor the demonic. Here you need to know that, unlike in the rest of Japan, the local residents believe that the demons are actually not malevolent creatures. Instead, spiritual adherents from this part of Japan assert that the creatures actually posses Buddha nature and are thus highly valued protectors of society. Now one thing you need to keep in mind is that Japanese conceptualizations of demons differ greatly from other parts in the world. Here, our demons are known as oni and more akin to what would be called ogres in the west. Despite their lack of leathery black wings, these monsters are certainly fearsome in their own right and you’ll be glad to know they’re on the side of humanity.
Get to Know Oita
In addition to knowing about the oni themselves, it’s also critical that you understand a bit about the culture that gave birth to the Shujo Onie before we dive into the festival details. Known as the Rokugo Manzan, this ancient polity held sway over huge swaths of Kyushu for eons. Centered in the Kunisaki Peninsula, this 1,300 year-old civilization was the first place in Japan where Buddhism and Shinto began to mix into a single syncretic system of beliefs. With its rich legacy, the Rokugo Manzan culture is one of my all-time favorite topics to write about and I’ve authored many pieces in the past. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll instead suggest that you check out any of the following articles for a more nuanced explanation.
Kicking it in Oita
A Guide to the Onsen Prefecture
The Ballad of Usa Jingu
The Kunisaki Peninsula’s Legacy
A Different Side of Oita
The Revenants of the Prefecture’s Past
Oita’s Bucolic “Island of Princesses”
Though the above are not entirely necessary to enjoy the Shujo Onie, having the historical context of the Rokugo Manzan certainly helps to add informed layers to this already mind blowing experience. Consider giving these articles a read when you have a few extra minutes to spare.
How to Get There
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Travel to Oita Prefecture is actually a bit of a challenge for most foreign tourists. While the prefecture is indeed accessible via train, the easiest route is to simply fly in from any major airport. This means that it is not exactly convenient for those looking to get the most of their JR Rail Passes. Luckily, for those who do manage to make the trek, Oita makes up for its poor accessibility with an amazing array of attractions. Every time I return to the prefecture, I’m utterly astonished by how much there is to see and do. Do yourself a favor and just book a flight. The time saved is easy worth the added cost.
After arriving in Oita, you are going to want to get yourself a rental car. The Kunisaki Peninsula is marked by towering crags and lush forests meaning there is little to no public transportation. While there are options for tours and the like during the day, these services will not be running late at night when the Shujo Onie comes to its conclusion. If you choose not to drive, another alternative is to rent a taxi for the day. While costly, consider splitting the expense among friends seeing this is your only option. Ultimately, I went with the taxi option myself and let me say I was very thankful to have a ride waiting for me at the end of the festival.
Unfortunately, these days there are only two or three sites on the Kunisaki Peninsula where you can witness the Shujo Onie. In bygone days, the festival sites were plentiful; however, fires and the like have now claimed these locations for varied celebrations. Entropic forces aside, apparently embodying demonic entities in the physical world comes with its own set of hazards. Whodathunkit! Anyway, as of this writing, you’ll have the choice between catching the Shujo Onie either at Tennen-ji or at Iwato-ji and Jobutsu-ji. In the case of the latter two, the temple pairs take turns overseeing the festival and alternate every year. When I joined the Shujo Onie in 2019, the festival was held at Iwato-ji so I’ll be recounting my experiences from that perspective.
What about you, the reader, though? Which one of these should you choose? Honestly, it all depends on your travel plans as the festivals are held so that they don’t conflict with each other. Be sure to double check the festivals’ dates and schedules before planning your visit. Should you experience difficulties navigating Japanese language with Google translate, just ask a friend for assistance. All things considered, I’ve heard that the Shujo Onie at Tennen-ji has been slightly altered to better cater to guests. With that said, if you are a stickler about authenticity like I am, consider taking in the Shujo Onie at one of the two temple sites mentioned above.
What to Expect
OK, let’s finally get down to business and talk about the Shujo Onie itself. By far, this is one of the longest festivals that I’ve ever experienced. Things kick off in the early afternoon and run straight through to the wee hours next morning. If you want to partake in the total experience, you’re going to need enough caffeine to disqualify an entire Olympic team. Luckily, for those with jam packed travel itineraries, you need not spend a full day at the Shujo Onie. In fact, the most fascinating features don’t really get rolling until around 6:00 PM or so depending on which site you opt for. To make the most of your trip, consider visiting some other Kunisaki Peninsula destinations while you await the real action to commence following sundown.
The main event of the night is a ritualized cleansing ceremony. As can be seen above, several individuals from nearby areas will strip down to nothing but a simple, traditional undergarment known as a fundoshi. Thereupon, these brave souls will plunge themselves into a purifying pool of water. Note that one of the standout qualities of the Tennen-ji festival is the cleansing ritual unfolds directly in front of a stone etching of the Immovable King, Fudo Myoo himself. Pretty cool if you ask me! Regardless of which Shujo Onie you opt for though, the fact remains that all festivities take place in the dead of winter. To give you some context, despite wearing a warm jacket, I was freezing all night; I can only imagine what these poor participants were suffering through.
Once the men of the town have purified themselves, they will return to the temple halls, still dripping wet, for some silent meditation. Thereafter, the real fun (and danger) begins. As shown in the shot above, the local participants will begin igniting a collection of giant braziers. These things are seriously no joke and definitely violate fire safety codes worldwide. I mean just look at that thing! You can feel the intense heat coming off the flaming braziers from a good distance aways. Is it any surprise that some of the Kunisaki Peninsula’s temples went up in flames as a result of this insanity? It’s truly a miracle that no one was rushed to the hospital. Hell, I’ve even heard that at Tennen-ji’s Shujo Onie, the behemoth torches are thrashed against the foundations of the main building to invoke prosperity. Yikes!
Anyway, following the dangerous show of pyromancy, it will be time for the monks to begin their preparations for their ritualistic embodiment of the oni. Ready yourself for two hours of solemn chanting and ceremonial strutting. Alas, unless you’re adept at speaking Japanese and know your Buddhist lore well, much of the significance of this portion of the Shujo Onie will be lost on you. Hell, even I had trouble keeping up with this part so rather than try to figure out what’s going on, I’d suggest that you use this time to take a much needed break. For my Shujo Onie experience in 2019 at Iwato-ji, the temple had erected a number of bonfires to keep observers warm. Consider snuggling up close to one of these pyres while waiting for the night’s climax to begin.
After some time, the chanting will die down and it will be time for the real fun to begin. Sooner or later, you’ll see two masked figures dressed in blue and red garbs take the stage. These characters are the first set of demons that you’ll encounter and will dance about the stage in preparation for what’s to come. Known as the Suzu-Oni, this duo acts as heralds for the others of their kind. In total, there are four different types of oni at the Shujo Onie and each figure dons a different mask. Moreover, as described below, each of these four types of oni performs a distinct role in the ceremony.
Suzu-Oni: Sporting a pair of bells for their ritual, these two oni perform the role of welcoming the other three demons.
Saibarai-Oni: This oni is said to ward off evil spirits and is therefore thought to bring good luck to the people.
Shizume-Oni: Despite his terrifying visage, this oni is said to evoke a relaxing sense of calm and relief.
Ara-Oni: In contrast to the Shizume-Oni, this demon is considered to be rough and aggressive.
Following the spine-chilling performance by the Suzu-Oni, it will be time for the remaining demons to take center stage. Now, from what I can gather, how things play out from here on out differs slightly depending on which Shujo Onie you participate in. At Iwato-ji’s festival, the unmasked monks who would become the oni were carried out of a nearby grotto by local assistants. Apparently, without their masks, the demonic embodiment is not yet complete and the oni are unable to move about on their own. Once hoisted onto the stage by the attendants, and given their respective masks, the fiends will spring to life. It’s a breathtaking scene to behold and you’ll be grateful knowing the creatures and bound with ropes to suppress their great power.
Now this shouldn’t need to be stated but obviously the temple’s monks are not actually inviting a demonic soul to take over their bodies here. Nevertheless, while the monks can be said to be “acting” per say, this is definitely not a play or anything of the sort. Instead, the Shujo Onie is a religious ceremony much like the ritualistic beliefs of imbibing wine at Communion which is believed to symbolize Christ’s blood. That said, the Japanese do use the word “become” when talking about taking on the role of an oni. Moreover, I am certain the participants maintain altered states of deep concentration throughout the entirety of the Shujo Onie as their performances are absolutely convincing and doubtlessly different from mere acting.
Anyway, once the monks have taken on the identity of the oni, the festival continues with a bit more dancing and chanting. The recently embodied fiends will brandish some intimidating, lit bamboo braziers as they prance about the outer edges of the platform. At least as far as my experience at Iwato-ji showed, the Shujo Onie’s audience will eventually be invited on stage. Following additional ritualized dancing that is captured in this 30 second clip, the oni will give each and every person a good thwap on the shoulder with the burning bamboo for good luck. Should fortune be on your side, you may even get an extra whack or two from the demons. Don’t worry, though. Unless you have a metal plate in your shoulder like your’s truly, it shouldn’t hurt at all.
If you’re at the Iwato-ji or Jobutsu-ji Shujo Oni, following the beneficial beatings by the oni, the creatures will then tear off into the night at an alarming speed brandishing blazing torches. The fiends’ destinations will be the local township where they will make door to door visits at each domicile, blessing them with the same good luck as they did those attending the ceremony. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen at Tennen-ji as the barrier erected by the monks to contain the demons prior to the Shujo Onie is quite small. The limited space is not a concern at Iwato-ji and Jobutsu-ji which allows the oni more freedom of movement.
Oh yeah, by the way, there’s an interesting folktale about these barriers. Apparently, over the years, supernatural “incidents” have occurred at some of the temples. From what my guide shared, anyone embodying an oni who steps foot outside the barrier will be thereafter unable to take off their mask. Allegedly, one year, an Ara-Oni at Iwato-ji went mad and fled into the darkness never to be seen again. Likewise, at Tennen-ji, one of the Shizume-Oni dared to step outside of the temple’s tiny barrier and was subsequently unable to remove his guise. The poor guy was found dead a few days later with the oni mask still firmly anchored to his face.
As unsettling as these anecdotes may be, I’m not about to say that I wholeheartedly embrace these folktales. With that said, even today, both Iwato-ji and Tennen-ji continue to be down one of the four types of oni. To be on the safe side, let’s just say you won’t be catching me with one of those masks on my face any time soon…
What to Prepare
Now I shouldn’t really need to even say this but you definitely don’t want to show up to the Shujo Onie wearing anything that can easily go up in flames. That means you are going to want to leave anything that is made of acrylic or polyester at home. In chatting with the locals, I learned that every year there is some idiot who shows up in a puffy down jacket. Inevitably, the poor fool leaves the Shujo Onie with a jacket riddled by holes from the flying embers. Remember, the participants are wielding flaming bamboo sticks which are guaranteed to kick off clusters of sparks when colliding with the temple’s interior. Failing to prepare here is simply asking for ruined clothing or even worse, a trip to the hospital.
While you certainly need to take precaution around burning bamboo, you’ll also want to consider how to keep yourself warm throughout the festivities. Recall that the Shujo Onie Festival takes place in the dead of winter. It was a struggle to endure the frigid weather conditions given boots, several warm layers, and frequent swings by the bonfire. If you’re in for the long haul, I highly recommend you purchase a few kairo at the convenience store. These vessels contain heat-generating liquids or powders and can be carried close to the body to maintain warmth. In fact, the world kairo in Japanese literally translates to “chest pocket fireplace.” Do yourself a favor and pack several to survive the night!
Other Nearby Attractions
I have been to Oita several times now and honestly, the prefecture continues to astonish me with its depth of content. There is simply so much to do in Oita that I don’t think I’ll ever reach the bottom of my bucket list. For starters, the Kunisaki Peninsula itself is the perfect incarnation of what many westerns are searching for when they say they want to experience something “spiritual.” As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, the Kunisaki Peninsula was the first area where Shinto and Buddhism began their long union well over 1,300 years ago. Even today, the remains of the resulting religious culture remains to be explored. Just know that you’ll need a car or driver to see most of what is on offer.
Looking to warm up after the Shujo Onie? Well you’re in luck because Oita is known as the so-called “onsen prefecture.” When it comes to a good, relaxing soak, you really are spoiled for choice. Of course, Oita’s Beppu City needs no introduction and is by far the most well known onsen resort town in the prefecture (if not all of Japan). That said though, there are plenty of other alluring onsen towns such as Yufuin. Located along a flat river basin and surrounded by mountains, this hot spring getaway is the perfect way to bliss out after experiencing the madness of the Shujo Onie.
For more suggestions about what to do in Oita , be sure to check out any of the other articles that I’ve authored about the prefecture! You’ll find all of my work linked up above in the opening paragraphs.
Until next time travelers…