Every spring the Buddhist temple in Takao, a mountain town close to Tokyo, holds a "fire-walking" ritual that's intended to burn away bad luck and misfortune. And a layer of skin if it's not done right. A massive pile of wood is piled into a square, with fresh pine branches loaded on top. The moist pine give off a magnificent plume of whitish, sweet-smelling smoke. Once it burns down, the monks rake a path through its middle and then walk briskly through in bare feet. Once they've done it, the public has its chance. There must have been about 500 to 800 people lined up for a try. My luck's been running fine, so I just watched.
Ojiya is a small town in the mountains north of Tokyo. Each winter they have a hot-air balloon festival, which includes snow sculptures, food tents, fireworks and, of course, hot-air balloons, which, if the weather is decent, you lay down your yen and take for a tethered flight a few hundred feet in the air. It snowed most of time I was there, so the balloons were grounded. In the evening there's a "light" show: the flames that produce the hot air for flight flash into the balloons, making them glow like small, multi-colored moons. The fireworks use the balloons as a backdrop...um, make that a frontdrop.
Ojiya is also known for raising championship koi, which must be spotted and colored to exacting specifications. There's a koi "exhibit" downtown where you can feed them and read about this esoteric (by American standards) pastime.
As for the anger that simmers just below the surface in Ojiya, you'll have to go to the jump to check that out.
One of my recent trips to the mountains north of Tokyo was to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where the macaques warm themselves in the hot springs. If that's not enough to keep their interest, the park tosses tiny food pellets in the considerable snow cover surrounding the springs. The adult monkeys split their time between hanging in the hot water and searching for food. The youngsters add a third significant activity: playing.
The monkeys aren't exactly tame, but they're not too fearful either. They never look you in the eye, which is considered a challenge of authority. (More pics after the jump.)