About a week after New Year’s in Matsumoto as I was heading to the local vegetable market, I saw what looked to be a giant, several-meter-high Christmas tree has suddenly appeared on an empty lot in my neighborhood. For a second, I couldn’t believe my eyes; last time I checked, Christmas had ended two weeks ago and this «tree» was definitely not there the day before.
Looking closer, the tree was actually constructed out of pine boughs that were used as New Year’s decorations and «decorated» with several daruma dolls strung around or stuck into the top of the tree, making them appear like Christmas ornaments. There were also other kinds of charms and New Year’s decorations stuck into the structure, as well.
Continuing down the road, these «Christmas trees» were everywhere: along the river, in the fields, and on the side of the road.
It turns out the «trees» were actually for an event called the Sankuro (三九郎) Fire Festival (also known as «Dondoyaki» in other areas) where old New Year’s decorations such as pine boughs, straw ropes, kadomatsu, as well as last year’s «used» daruma dolls are burned.
New Year’s decorations are related to the religious and spiritual rituals that take place around the end and beginning of the year, when supposedly the Toshigamisama deity of the New Year comes and takes up residence in these sacred decorations, so it would not be a good idea to throw them away the regular trash. While the act of setting up the decorations for New Year welcomes the Toshishigamisama, the act of burning represents bidding the deity farewell.
The daruma dolls, which have ties to Buddhism, are used to represent a goal or wish you have for the year, and if it comes true, they get burned at the end of the year, as well (then you can get a new one!). Burning of daruma may also occur at temples or shrines.
So, as you probably guessed already, what happens during the Sankuro Fire Festival is that each of the Sankuro trees gets turned into a huge bonfire!
Now, besides being a proper way to dispose of your used New Year decorations and daruma, the Sankuro Fire Festival is also considered a special festival for children. The neighborhood children will get a branch from a willow tree (sold at supermarkets and farmers markets around festival time) and stick colorful rice cakes called «mayudama» onto the end of each twig.
They then roast them in the Sankuro bonfire just like you would roast marshmallows! This fun custom is to wish for good health for each child for the rest of the year. (Eating snacks for health sounds like a dream to me!)
If you’re around Matsumoto or Nagano around the beginning of the year, this is definitely something to keep an eye out for.