In Akita, in the north of Japan, there is a peculiar tradition on New Year’s Eve. In villages and town across the prefecture local families will be visited by scores of demons, dressed in straw rags carrying buckets and weapons. These demons will do their best to scare the children of the family into promising to behave and not be lazy. I have never seen this tradition in real life but in Aoyama earlier this autumn I got to see a few of these demons dressed up for action! I can only imagine the terror experience by Akita children, but everyone I have ever met from the prefecture was perfectly pleasant and hard working so maybe the demons actually work! They are called Namahage (生剥), which fittingly comes from the name for the burn you get if you are lazy and spend too much time under the heated tables, the kotatsu, in winter.
As with all countries, Japanese have notions and ideas of the characteristics of people in different areas of the country. Of all the areas of Japan (the 都道府県, the 47 subnational jurisdictions made up of one metropolis, one circuit, two prefectural cities and 43 prefectures), no area gets away without getting attributed with a few bad manners or cultural handicaps. The interesting thing about this nationwide system of good natured making fun of your neighbors, only one prefecture comes away with nothing but a positive image, and that is the north western Akita prefecture. As soon as you mention the name Akita, the associated saying of “Akita beauty”, Akita bijin (秋田美人) jumps into people’s minds. It is said that the most beautiful women of Japan are to be found in Akita prefecture! I have never been to Akita so I can’t verify the truth behind this saying but I am happy for the people of Akita to be regarded so universally positively by their fellow countrymen.
Naturally the tourism and commerce board of Akita prefecture make the most of “Akita Beauty” and use it fully in marketing and export, as these two gorgeous ladies dressed in the wonderful traditional dress of the “Komachi Musume”, the legendary village of beauties whose annual festival is famous across the country. I have seen this dress thousands of times on TV and in photos, but this was the first time I saw it in real life, and as an added bonus I got a packet of delicious Akita rice from them. I have to visit Akita soon!