Demons, Dogs, and Fire: 3 Winter Festivals in Akita
Winters in Northern Japan can be severe; the snow piles up and after a few months it’s understandable to be dreaming of warmer days. But every February around the Lunar New Year there are three free winter festivals in Akita prefecture that will make you want to brave the cold for a chance to experience these unique Japanese traditions.
Demons: Namahage-Sedo Matsuri, Shinzan Shrine, Oga Peninsula
Second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in February (February 9-11, 2018)
One of the great snow festivals of Tohouku, this festival is a combination of the Shinto Saitosai ritual with its Sedo bonfire and the local Oga folklore of the Namahage, monsters who go from house to house in search of lazy and disobedient children! At the beginning of the night, young men dressed as the Namahage in traditional straw costumes are presented with masks that have been purified by a Shinto priest. They then ascend the mountain to the residence of the Gods. The evening continues with traditional dances in front of the Sedo bonfire, Taiko drumming, and other presentations. Soon after, the Namahage return down from the mountain carrying torches and interacting with the crowd–searching for any disobedient children and warning them to behave. After these playfully scary encounters, the Namahage return up the mountain. Any pieces of straw left behind from the Namahage’s costumes are thought to be lucky, so keep an eye out! The priests offer the demons goma-mochi, rice cakes that have been grilled on the Sedo bonfire. The goma-mochi is shared with the festival crowd and is said to ward off misfortune.
Hours: 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM
Visit the English page for the Namahage-Sedo Matsuri here for more information.
Dogs: Inukko Matsuri, Yuzawa
Second Saturday and Sunday in February (February 10 and 11, 2018)
2018 is the year of the dog, and there’s no better time to make a trip to Yuzawa and the Inukko Matsuri. In Akita, home of the dog breed of the same name, dogs (inu in Japanese) are referred to affectionately as inukko and at the Inukko Matsuri dogs come from all around the region to receive their blessings. However, the main draw of this winter festival are the large dog statues made out of snow.
Large enough to sit on, you’ll see small children lining up to get a picture atop their favorite snow dog. The roads leading up to the main festival grounds also feature snow sculptures, smaller snow shrines line the streets and are decorated with candles and small mochi dog statues. There are plenty of food, game, and craft stalls on the main festival grounds and the adjacent streets. At night the snow statues are illuminated by candle light and children offer up mochi and amazake (a sweet sake with little-to-no alcohol) at the snow huts. Opening night also features drumming and a fireworks display.
Hours: 2/10 (Saturday) 8:30 AM – 9:00 PM
2/11 (Sunday) 8:30 AM – 8:00 PM
Fire: Hiburi Kamakura, Kakunodate
Lunar New Year (February 13 and 14, 2018)
Kakunodate is best known for its beautiful samurai district and cherry blossom lined streets, but over Lunar New Year every February it is home to the Hiburi Kamakura Fire and Snow Festival. A large snow platform is constructed next to the Hinokinai River and come nightfall, participants light bales of hay on fire and swing them overhead, bestowing health and good fortune on themselves and their families. For the bravest among us, festival-goers are welcome to participate and try this thrilling ritual themselves. This is a smaller festival, with a strong community atmosphere, but foreigners are very welcome and encouraged to participate. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with traditional Japanese culture. The first night of the festival includes a blessing ritual, the ceremonial lighting of the fire from the kamakura snow hut, and ends with a fireworks display. The second night, these fiery displays will also take place in various locations across the city.
Hours: 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM
More information on the Hiburi Kamakura Fire and Snow Festival can be found at the websites below:
(Japanese brochure, with a map and short section in English)
Bonus: Yokote Kamakura Festival, Yokote
February 15th and 16th every year
Many of the winter festivals across Japan feature huts made of snow called Kamakura. These huts, originating as places to pray to the water god, are lit by candlelight and children will offer visitors mochi rice cakes and amazake. During the Yokote Kamakura Festival, hundreds of these snow huts are constructed and illuminated across the city. The smallest are only about one foot high, but the largest are over twelve feet! The largest kamakura are displayed outside of Yokote Castle and the Kamakurakan Hall.
Admission: Festival Free, Kamakurakan Hall – ¥100
Hours: 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Location: Kamakurakan Hall
Information on the Yokote Kamakura Festival can be found in English here.