Kamakura Festival

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Kamakura Festival in Japan
-Melissa Villeneuve

Along with its brilliant light displays, Japan has another cherished winter tradition that features hundreds of igloo-like snow houses, called kamakura. The largest and most spectacular kamakura festival is held in the city of Yokote, Japan, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

The Yokote Kamakura Festival is held every February and has a history of more than 450 years. During the festival, more than 100 life-sized kamakura are built throughout the city. Each kamakura is about 1.5 meters wide and 2 meters tall and is built entirely from compacted snow which is then later hollowed out. A full-size kamakura can comfortably seat several adults inside.

The snow domes were traditionally built to offer hospitality to the Shinto water deity. Inside each kamakura there is a snow altar dedicated to the water deity, to whom people pray to for clean and pure water, safety of family members, success in life, and an abundant harvest. Families will gather inside the kamakura and grill rice cakes, or mochi, around a small charcoal brazier and enjoy amazake, a type of low-alcohol sweet rice wine. During the festival, visitors are invited inside to partake in the tradition, and make an offering to the water deity before they leave.

Hundreds of smaller kamakura, the size of lanterns, are made by school children and line the Yokote River. Illuminated by candles, these mini kamakura create beautiful visuals in the snow. Each mini kamakura also contains a wish placed by the child who made it. Many visitors enjoy taking an evening stroll along the igloo-lined pathways.

Other highlights of the festival include food stalls, snow sculptures, and a giant snow slide for children to enjoy. Yokote Castle, a hilltop Edo-style castle built in the 1500s and reconstructed in 1965, also opens its doors during the festival so visitors can enjoy a spectacular night view of the city from its observation deck.

A few kamakura are preserved year-round in a small -10 degree Celsius room at the Kamakurakan Hall in Yokote. This makes it possible for visitors to experience the snow houses even during the summer months. 

The Kamakura Festival is held in the days preceding the Bonden ritual, held annually on February 17, which features tall ornamental wands used to summon the spirits of the kami, or Japanese deities, to temporarily inhabit. These decorated wands are quite large to make the bonden visible from afar. The bonden used for the Yokote Festival are five meters tall and weigh over 30 kilograms. They are traditionally decorated with colorful ornaments, elaborate headdresses, and dolls, and sometimes resemble a miniature shrine. Although bonden rituals are held throughout Akita Prefecture, none are as grandiose as that of Yokote City. Upon the blast of fireworks, an array of bonden are carried from Yokote City Hall to the Asahiokayama Shrine by a long procession of people. Once they arrive, at the sound of a shell horn, they enter the main shrine and make their offering.

Posted on:
Thursday, December 02, 2021

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