Someone once told me that the best festivals in Japan are the ones that are on a fixed date every year. These are the ones with long histories that are still going in the present day, as opposed to a weekend event for the tourists.
January 15th each year is the Matsunoyama Mukonage, or Bridegroom Throwing. It has over 300 years of history, and is a small local festival full of charm. Newly wed grooms are paraded through the streets on the shoulders of their companions, carried up a hill to the local shrine, and then tossed over a snow bank to roll down to their waiting brides. It has its roots in a bit of jealousy that someone is taking away one of the daughters of the village and so the lucky bridegroom is plied with drinks and subjected to a bit of hazing. January 15th was known as the “little New Year”. Wives were traditionally very busy during the New Year period with their husband’s family but on the 15th they usually returned to their home towns, where they could enjoy a rest. It was when they went back to Matsunoyama Onsen for the first time with their new husbands that their partners were subject to being tossed into the snow. Having received this treatment though, the bridegrooms were then accepted by their wife’s townsfolk with open arms.
The procession of 3 bridegrooms stops for a few drinks at the foot of the hill up to the shrine. The grooms are told to drink copiously as this will help their bodies cushion the fall. Their friends who are throwing them are told that the sake will give them strength to throw. Climbing up a steep, winding, snowy path with a grown man on your shoulders is a challenging job but the reward at the top is another toast, and then the chance to throw your friend into a snow drift.
Once all bridegrooms (and often their friends too) have tumbled down the bank it is off to small clearing where there is a giant bonfire.
After a blessing on the new couple from a priest, the grooms light the bonfire. Once the heat has subsided everyone mixes the ash with snow and paint each others’ faces for good luck. It starts out as small dabs of ash but before long, to much hilarity, everyone is covered in ash, even the attending police, and filming camera crews.
It is an amazing little countryside festival full of fun and smiling faces. Well worth visiting. There are some great accommodation options in Matsunoyama Onsen which boast one of the top 3 medicinal onsen in Japan. Later that night is the Nozawa Dosojin Fire Festival just down the road, if you have not had your fill of fire and festivals for one night!