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.
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Misato’s Rokugo District: 10 min from Ômagari Station (JR Akita Shinkansen) by car
Hiburi Kamakura: Swirling Balls of Fire
Akita ken’s Kakunodate is known as Tohoku’s “Little Kyoto” because many samurai residences are well preserved there, giving the town a refined, elegant atmosphere. Every February 13 to 14, the town holds a Lunar New Year celebration called Hiburi Kamakura (The Fire and Snow Festival). The event starts with participants lighting bales of straw on fire in furnances made of snow, and is followed by the burning of both tenpitsu and New Year’s decorations in a bonfire to pray for peace in the new year. The highlight of the festival is when participants grab the ends of the ropes tied to the flaming straw bales and whirl them in circular
motions around themselves. This swirling ritual of blazing fireballs, traditionally thought to ward off diseases in the new year, adds a mystical aura to the snow-covered landscape.
Kakunodate: Kakunodate Station (JR Akita Shinkansen)
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’
The Yokote Kamakura Matsuri, held every February, has a history of 450 years, and features many igloos at various locations across the city and a burning ritual. Traditionally, in the area between the Yokote River and Yokote Castle (once a samurai residence), locals would worship the God of Kamakura by offering sake and homemade pounded rice cakes. They also burned New Year’s decorations and ropes in igloos to pray for children’s wellbeing. On the other side of the Yokote River, where commoners used to live, igloos were traditionally set up to honour the
water gods next to the communal well, which supported the lives of the locals. Today, this tradition carries on as residents set up altars to worship the gods, while children often stay in the igloos enjoying grilled rice cakes and amazake, a traditional, sweet, non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice.
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.
Modern bonden sometimes weigh more than 30 kilos, depending on the amount of creativity that goes into the making. During the festival season, bonden are displayed around residential areas as a prayer for safety before being carried by a group of men to Asahiokayama Shrine on February 17.
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)
Kanto-Sai, also known as the Candle Festival, in Nigata’s Sanjo city (famous for its cutlery production) has been held since the Edo period to pray for prosperous business and the safe travels for business owners. Visit the Sanjo Hachiman Shrine on January 14 and 15 to see gigantic candles weighing 30 to 50 kilos, with a diameter of 50 centimetres and a height of one metre!
Sanjo: Tsubamesanjô Station (JR Jôetsu Shinkansen)