Whenever the topic of Japanese festivals (matsuri 祭り) is brought up, the season which usually comes to mind first would be summer when many gather in their yukatas and clogs to visit food stalls selling various delicacies and game stalls offering entertainment for people of all ages. The festivals usually end with fireworks illuminating the night sky as people are wowed by the colourful displays.
As the weather gets colder in Japan, how about making plans in February next year to experience 5 unique Japanese festivals happening in the Northern Tohoku region?
First of all, let’s find out more about Northern Tohoku (北東北). The entire Tohoku region is actually made up of six prefectures namely Aomori (青森), Akita (秋田), Iwate (岩手), Fukushima (福島), Miyagi (宮城) and Yamagata (山形). It is then further divided into the Northern Tohoku region i.e. Aomori, Akita and Iwate and the Southern Tohoku region made up by the remaining three prefectures.
To get to the Northern Tohoku region via train, you can take the Tohoku Shinkansen which stretches all the way from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori or hop off at some of the stations along this line and transfer to other railway lines such as the Akita Shinkansen which is from Morioka in Iwate to Akita. If you wish to drive, there are major expressways such as the Tohoku Expressway and Nihonkai-Tohoku Expressway which you can use depending on your destination. Each of the three prefectures also has their local airports for domestic flights in Akita, Morioka and Aomori.
In Northern Tohoku, there are five representative winter festivals which are jointly referred to as Michinoku Godai Snow Festival. There is a promotion council called the Michinoku Godai Snow Festival Promotion Council which manages a website and Facebook page where you can find information about the festivals such as their official websites, dates when the festivals are held, opening hours, events taking place during the festivals, locations and transport directions.
Of the five festivals, the Iwate Snow Festival is the first to start at the end of January whose main venue is at a farm named Koiwai Farm Makiba Garden in Shizukuishi, Iwate. There are also sub-events held at other locations such as the town centre. The festival sees an average of 300,000 visitors every year and admission is free. Details for next year’s festival have not been released yet but regular attractions from previous years include snow sculptures and playground items such as a slide, food stalls offering local delights and Genghis Khan BBQ and live performances. At night, visual treats include the snow sculptures which are illuminated in beautiful colours from 5.30pm onwards and the spectacular fireworks show which takes place from 7.30pm.
Hirosaki Castle is usually seen as a famous spot for sakura viewing in spring but it takes on a different look in winter. The Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival which started in 1977 features snow lanterns made by the locals which can withstand the long and harsh winters in Tohoku. The castle and the trees in the park which are covered in snow, are illuminated from 4 pm onwards using colourful lights which lend a mystical feel to the surroundings. About 300 candles will also be lit up around the lotus pond as part of the illumination event. Besides these, attractions such as a snow slide and events are also held during the entire festival. In the upcoming edition of this festival, there will be a projection mapping show called Hirosaki Castle Stone Wall Multi Projection by HIROSAKI MOVING PROJECT where there will be beautiful images projected on the 140m-long stone wall of the castle.
The Namahage Sedo Festival is actually a combination of the Saito Matsuri (柴灯祭) and the Namahage (なまはげ) ceremony which takes place on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February. The Saito Matsuri traces its roots back to 1964 and is a signature winter festival held at the Shinzan Shrine. As for the Namahage ceremony, it is primarily held on New Year’s Eve in about 80 villages within Oga City. The villagers would dress up in the Namahage costumes and go around various households to “punish the evil, remove disasters and bless the people living there”. During the festival, the events kick off with the entrance of the Namahage spirits followed by the ceremony at the shrine, drum performances and dances where the finale is marked by the descent from the mountain and offerings of mochi to the gods. For those interested in knowing more about the Namahage which was designated as an important intangible folk cultural asset since 1978, the Oga Shinzan Denshokan and the Namahage Museum will be open to all for free from 4 pm each day.
The Kamakura Festival has a history of about 420 years to date and was usually held on the 14th to 16th days of the lunar new year in honour of the Water God (水神様). Since 1952, the date of the festival has been fixed on 15th February and together with the Bonten Festival, both events are jointly known as the Snow Festival.
Snow structures called the Kamakura are built at various locations from which children call out to people outside and offer a sweet wine called amaeko and mochi in the name of the Water God. During the festival, as many as 100 kamakuras are built within the city where locals gather to spend time with friends and family members while enjoying the amaeko and mochi. It used to be that the residents could build their own kamakuras anywhere but due to the increased vehicle traffic in the city, there were restrictions imposed on where the kamakuras could be built since 1969. In response to this change, mini kamakuras started popping up as they took up lesser space and were lit with candles at night thus giving rise to the establishment of the kamakura street which is a tourist hot spot.
During the Edo era, the kamakura took on a different meaning from today whereby samurai families used the kamakuras to pray for their children’s growth and the avoidance of disasters. In merchant families, they prayed for the supply of good water to make their businesses flourish while children would use kamakuras as their playgrounds in the past. With the changing times, the festival has become more of a tourism event rather than for religious purposes.
The Hachinohe Enburi is a representative folk dance of the Hachinohe area meant to welcome the arrival of spring in the southern Aomori region and has been designated as an important intangible folk cultural asset. During the festival, the dance which also has the purpose of praying for bountiful harvests is performed by dancers who wear hats resembling a horse’s head. The signature feature of this dance is the head movements which resemble the actions of farmers planting the seeds and ploughing the land. About 30 groups of dancers will be performing during the 4-day festival which typically attracts an average of 250,000 visitors.
Now that you’ve read about the 5 snow festivals, hope that you’ll have the opportunity to explore them on your own and have a great time in the upcoming winter season!