The Tradition of “Kamakura”
Once there has been a lot of snowfall, there are many regions in Japan where snow houses called “kamakura” are made by hollowing out snow that has been piled up in the shape of domes. If you hear of “houses made from snow”, you probably think it sounds very cold but if you go inside, you will be surprised at how warm it is. The reason for this is not only because the snow walls block the wind, but also because the air inside the snow acts as insulation as well.
“Kamakura” in Yokote, Akita Prefecture. Children call out to visitors from inside the kamakura. © Kyodo News
In the regions of Akita and Niigata Prefectures on the Japan Sea side facing the continent, the worshiping of gods inside these kamakura has continued since ancient times. Among these, the “Kamakura and Bonden” festival of Yokote in Akita Prefecture is especially famous. If you walk the streets at dusk, kamakura, 3 meters tall and 3.5 meters wide, built right in front of homes, are lit up with candles inside. Children inside them will call out to you in the local dialect, “haittetanse (please come inside kamakura)”. Once you have been treated to drinks and mochi inside the kamakura you will begin to feel as if you have wandered into a picture book of Japanese folktales.
A Celebration of Snow and Fire
In Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, the “Honyarado Festival” is held every year where candles are lit inside approximately 3,000 small kamakura that are about 50 centimeters tall in a snowfield. Using land that has been buried in snow, residents of the area began this handmade event about 20 years ago. Since the making of the kamakura in the snowfields begins every year in the afternoon of the day of the festival, anyone can participate as long as you have a shovel.
Participants light the flames at the snowfield venue for the “Honyarado Festival”.
© Kyodo News
Swinging around the fire with all one’s strength at the “Hiburi Kamakura” to pray for good health. (Photo courtesy of Akita Prefecture Semboku City Commerce and Industry Section)
A child beginning to swing the burning straw bag around him. ©Kyodo News
The “Hiburi Kamakura” festival of Semboku, Akita Prefecture, another festival also using fire, is a must-see attraction with its intense atmosphere where rings of fire are swung around in circles. As a tradition that has continued since over 400 years ago, a straw bag of charcoal is burned at the end of a rope about one meter long. If you slowly and gently swing the rope around you, the flames will begin to roar and will soon make a beautiful fire ring.