This article originally featured in the January 2020 issue of Connect.
Entertainment Editor: Rachel Fagundes (Okayama)
While my main goals this winter break are to relax, plan for the future, and use the school ovens to make the holiday cookies I so desperately crave, there are also two winter festivals I’ve been particularly looking forward to attending.
First, the beautiful town of Takachiho in Kyushu hosts an all-night sacred kagura performances I’ve been looking forward to for months now.
I previously visited Takachiho (also known for spectacular natural gorges) during Golden Week last year, and was very taken in by its natural beauty, fascinating folklore, and incredible kagura dances. One of the most famous stories in Japanese mythology tells how the Sun goddess Amaterasu hid in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. The other gods, after repeatedly failing to convince her to come out, threw a raucous dance party which aroused her curiosity enough to lure her from her cave and bring light back into the world. That very cave is apparently in Takachiho, and the residents of this town don incredible masks and perform kagura dances telling this story and others from Japanese mythology during the winter months.
I was able to see a brief sampling of four of the dances on my visit last spring (they hold nightly hour-long performances for tourists year round) and found it completely thrilling. However, from November to February, performances of these sacred dances last through the night. It’ll be well worth a trip down to Kyushu to see it for myself, and I’m looking forward to doing some onsen-hopping along the way.
The second festival will occur a little after my winter break ends, but sounds easily worth taking the time off for. At the notorious Dosojin Fire Festival, 42-year old men are going to climb a tower shrine made from rice stalks and the wood of sacred trees, 25-year-old men will guard the tower’s base (because 42 and 25 are unlucky numbers) and the rest of the village men will spend the rest of the night trying to burn it the fuck down with flaming torches and projectiles. While the older men are still on it, taunting their attackers below. You know, to banish evil spirits. What could possibly go wrong? I have no idea—but I am very excited to find out.
So safe travels this winter you guys! Have a happy new year! And if any of you have access to the blessed ovens of your school’s home economics rooms, I’ve included my favorite cookie recipe below, to keep you warm instead of desk-warming this winter. Or you could just, you know, set a tower full of middle aged men on fire. That seems fine.
Rachel Fagundes is a 3rd year ALT in Okayama Prefecture. She likes cats, naps, cat naps, Japanese festivals, and good books.
Chocolate Orange Walnut Cookies
◊ 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour ◊ 1 teaspoon baking soda ◊ 1 teaspoon salt cinnamon chinese five spice additional spices to taste ◊ 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened ◊ 1/2 cup granulated sugar ◊ 1 cup packed brown sugar molasses (optional) ◊ 1 teaspoon vanilla extract ◊ 2 eggs ◊ 3 oranges, zested ◊ 1 1/2 cups dark or bittersweet chocolate chips (or chopped up dark chocolate) ◊ 2 cups walnuts or more
Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C
Combine flour, baking soda, salt, and spices in a small bowl. I usually eyeball the spices rather than measure exactly, but I use a lot of cinnamon and/or Chinese five-spice (which has more cinnamon in it), and sometimes an additional sprinkling or cloves, anis, or ginger, etc, since I like a dark, gingerbready flavor. Note: I suspect this is not a popular flavor combo with my Japanese coworkers, so if you are making cookies to share with the office, maybe ease up on the spice.
Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. I often replace a spoonful or two of the brown sugar with molasses, again for a darker and richer flavor, but if you can’t get a hold of molasses in Japan don’t worry about it. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Zest two or three oranges and add zest into the wet batter.
Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts. I add about as many nuts as can be reasonably held together by the batter; makes for very hardy cookies.
Spoon desired cookie-sized dalops onto a greased baking sheet or non-stick pan.
Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.
Cookie Photo: Jade Wulfratt (Unsplash.com)