Yokote Snow Festival
The Tohoku region of northeast Japan has harsh winters and generally heavy snowfalls. At the height of winter, one of the most fun things to do is enjoy the kamakura (snow hut) traditional event in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture, which is said to date back some 450 years.
Japan’s snow country is home to a traditional ko-shogatsu* (Little New Year) event called “Kamakura,” in which snow is compacted and the inside hollowed out to create a space in which to worship the deity of water. One such Kamakura event is held in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture, where for 450 years, families have built kamakura (snow huts) to pray for abundant harvests and the safety of their households. Today, the tradition continues as part of the Yokote Snow Festival, an annual event held over two nights on February 15 and 16.
During the Snow Festival, more than eighty 3-meter-high kamakura are erected at the festival site, with thousands of miniature kamakura also set up on the riverbanks and elementary school grounds in Yokote City. In the evening, candles are lit inside them, creating a magical scene.
The many kamakura set up at the Snow Festival are built by local kamakura shokunin (kamakura artisans). They begin by drawing a circle around 3.5 to 4 meters in diameter, then collect and pile up snow inside it, treading down on the snow as they go until the mound reaches a height of around 3 meters. The kamakura is then hollowed out starting with the entrance, and a kamidana altar (literally, deity shelf) is carved into the wall opposite the entrance to enshrine the deity of water.
“Each kamakura is ‘hosted’ by three or four local children aged between 5 and 12. Children play a leading role in the Yokote Snow Festival,” says Konishi Haruna of the Yokote City Tourism Association.
Although kamakura are made of snow, they are surprisingly warm inside thanks to the shichirin (portable clay cooking stoves) placed within. From inside the kamakura, the children call out to festival-goers in the local dialect to “Come in and pay your respects to the gods!,” treating those who enter to refreshments of amazake, a sweet drink made from fermented rice, and grilled mochi rice cakes.
Even on bitterly cold nights, the soft glow from the kamakura and the smiles of the children envelop the visitors in a heart-warming embrace.
* Ko-shogatsu is an event held on January 15, as opposed to O-shogatsu, which is a New Year's event held mainly on January 1. Depending on the region, Ko-shogatsu may refer to the three days from January 14 to 16.