Snow festivals are common in Japan in winter. Each region celebrates them in their own way, with most involving snow sculptures. However, a unique snow festival with more of a focus on folklore happens every year during January 14th and 15th, in Niino, a village in the Shimoina district of Nagano prefecture. Let’s have a look at what makes this one special!
Niino is famous for being home to Izu Shrine. It is also famous for its heavy snowfall in the winter and colorful scenery in the spring. Every year, the Niino Snow Festival attracts hundreds of tourists to its festivities. The thing that attracts the visitors the most is the unique traditions associated with the festival. It starts with a procession called ‘onobori’ that begins at Suwa Shrine and ends at Izu Shrine on the evening of Jan 14th. That is followed by the preparation of a large torch, which is to be lit in the early hours of the following day. Also on that next day, 15th January, is when all of the performing arts happen.
A lot of entertainment activities such as dramas, dances and processions take place with local people actively participating in them. They perform 16 kinds of local arts on the festival night. It is designated as one of the intangible cultural properties of Japan. A series of masked dances and dramas take place depicting local gods such as Saiho. Offerings of snow are made to the gods so that they may bless the people with a good harvest. Imitations of horse racing called ‘kyoman’ are intended to ward off evil spirits when the rider shoots an arrow. In these performances, popular figures such as Tengu (the Japanese god of mischief), Okina (the Japanese god of wisdom) and so on make appearances.
Niino is famous for its ‘bon odori’ style dances performed to welcome the spirits of the dead where dancers move around a ‘yagura (a two story wooden structure) on which singers sit and sing without any instrument. Usually, bon dances have instrumental accompaniment. But here in Niino, dances happen just with hands and fans. They are called ‘te odori’ and ‘ogi odori’ respectively. In August also, there is a dancing festival dedicated to bon odori in particular called the ‘Niino-no-bon odori’. Also, a ‘cursing event’ happens during the snow festival where a priest of Shinto shrine enacts a question and answer session with a mountain demon. Winning the argument with the demon is seen as bringing luck to the village in the coming year.
There is a lot of tradition associated with this festival and is a nice experience to those who want to immerse themselves in local Japanese culture. These type of festivals are gaining a lot of attention lately due to their uniqueness. They reflect rural Japanese culture which is a bit different from urban life!