Sometime last week we got a notice from the neighborhood council that on Jan. 13 the children in the neighborhood would be coming door to door to collect New Year's decorations and in the evening the bonfire would be lit, so everyone come and enjoy. I'm afraid Tetsu and I aren't good participants of this custom for one reason, because we never have New Year's decorations, and for another, because we aren't drinkers so don't really enjoy the party atmosphere. When our kids were little they went a couple of times but I never have.
Yesterday returning from visiting Tetsu's mother, I noticed that here and there in the farming areas the Dontosai bonfire piles were being set up and everyone was getting ready for the big night. I suppose while the children are out collecting New Year's decorations the menfolk are setting up the bonfire with wood, branches and bamboo poles cut from the surrounding forests. The kadomatsu were being dismantled (have to be economically sound and the burnables separated from the unburnables) and the other decorations of straw, paper and wood were arranged on the wood pile. Not only were there New Year's decorations, but also trinkets that had sat on the family Shinto altar all year and were no longer "effective". New trinkets, lucky charms and decorations had probably been bought at the shrine at the beginning of the year so the old ones are returned to the gods by the rising smoke. While all this business is going on, the womenfolk are busy cutting vegetables for soup that will be served to everyone and also making little red and white rice-flour balls which everyone eats later in the evening to ward off evil spirits in the New Year.
Last night around 6:00 I took Choco and my trusty camera and went to check out the neighborhood Dontosai. The bonfire had been lit in the late afternoon but people were still milling around and keeping warm by the red ashes. Someone spotted me and brought me a bowl of vegetable soup so I tied Choco to a tree and joined the group and chatted with a couple of people. The red and white rice-flour balls had been stuck on tree branches and were being warmed by the fire and there were also long poles of bamboo that were stuck in the embers here and there and had been filled with osake to warm. Bamboo is an amazingly versatile plant, and a few poles had been sawed down into sections that could be used as cups so most people were having a jolly good time drinking warmed bamboo flavored osake in the freezing cold night while watching the sparks fly.
I guess my attendance was appreciated only because I was the only one there who had thought to bring a camera so someone asked me to take a couple of pictures of the volunteer fire"men" that were required to participate in the event. We have a district volunteer fire brigade and each neighborhood has to dispatch two members. I don't know what they normally do but on Dontosai they dress up in their silver suits and poke at the burning logs and I hope are not drinking too heartily of the osake.