Kamakura festivals, often held on the day of the first full moon of a new year (around mid-February) to pray for household safety and a bumper grain harvest, are traditional events in the Tohoku region. And there is far more to the Akita Kamakura festivals than their ever-popular igloo-building activities!
Rokugo Kamakura: with a Bamboo Pole Fight!
The Rokugo district in Akita Ken’s Misato town holds a Kamakura Matsuri every February 11 to 15, featuring an array of activities such as writing down one’s wish on coloured paper, making igloos, participating in or watching a “fortune-telling” bamboo pole fight and making a bonfire to burn the wish papers. The Rokugo Kamakura Festival is a combination of a rice harvest ritual that dates back to the Yayoi period (300 BC–300 AD) and an ancient court custom of burning tenpitsu (wish paper) in a bonfire.
The festival’s highlight is on the last day, when locals participate in a bamboo pole fight and burn the tenpitsu. The pole fight can be traced back to the Edo period (1603–1867) and the result of the competition is said to reveal the fortune of the coming year’s harvest. Participants divide themselves into team North and team South and, legend has it, if team North wins, the town will be blessed with a good harvest; if team South wins, rice prices will go up due to shortage. As the fight involves an intense bonfire and the aggressive swinging of five-meter-long bamboo poles, it is considered one of the most dangerous and exciting festivals in Japan.
After two rounds (the entire fight lasts for three), the audience start to burn tenpitsu on the triangular-shaped, straw bonfire. Tradition has it that bathing in the fire’s smoke brings health and wellbeing. Also, it is said that the higher one’s tenpitsu flies in the flame, the better one’s handwriting gets by the year, resulting in better grades at school.
Misato’s Rokugo District: 10 min from Ômagari Station (JR Akita Shinkansen) by car
Hiburi Kamakura: Swirling Balls of Fire
Kakunodate: Kakunodate Station (JR Akita Shinkansen)
Yokote Snow Festivals: Kamakura Matsuri & Bonden Matsuri
In the city of Yokote in Akita Ken, two traditional snow festival events are held annually on the first full moon of the year.
Calm Snow Festival – ‘Kamakura’
Yokote:20 min from Ômagari Station (JR Akita Shinkansen Station) to Yokote Station by local train JR Ôu Line
Active Snow Festival – ‘Bonden’
Bonden, a tool representing the descent of a divine spirit, are used in Shinto rituals. In the past, bonden were wooden sticks with many zigzag-shaped paper streamers tied to them. Today, bonden have evolved into 4.3-metre-high wooden poles with round bamboo baskets measuring 90 centimetres in diameter. They are accessorized with colourful strains of cloth, zigzag paper streamers and various other decorations.
Asahiokayama Shrine: 15 min from Yokote Station (JR Ôu Line) to Ôsawa stop by bus
Yuzawa Inukko Matsuri (Dog Festival)
On the second Saturday and Sunday of February, people make snow sculptures of dogs in Akita’s Yuzawa area to thank the canines for their loyalty. The festival, with a history of 400 years, also features altars made of snow, where participants offer rice cakes in the shape of dogs.
Yuzawa: 40 min from Ômagari Station (JR Akita Shinkansen) to Yuzawa Station by local train (JR Ôu Line )
Kento-Sai (Votive Lantern Festival)
Sanjo: Tsubamesanjô Station (JR Jôetsu Shinkansen)