Akita #4: Snow Huts (かまくら)

Winters in the Northern regions of Japan are harsh and snow-filled, but in Akita Prefecture’s Yokote City, a unique winter festival brings fun and light to a few winter nights in February. The Yokote Kamakura Festival is today’s topic, just in time for 2015’s festival, held from February 14-16.

Kamakura are snow huts. They are often made by children after a big snow in regions across Japan, and are the main component of the festival. After building many of these huts around the city, an alter is set into each, to a water deity to pray for ample water in the coming months. Children often grill rice cakes inside the hut, and beckon passers-by with hot amazake and the cakes. Visitors accept the food by entering, and make an offering to the deity in each hut they enter.

Also during the festival are extended areas of the castle allowing night views of the city, making your own kamakura in Komyoji Park, and snow sculptures and food stalls around the city into the night.

Not able to make it in the winter months? You can still view a kamakura, kept cold at the Kamakuran Hall in a special room year round.

I’ve never been to the festival, but kamakura are made all around the country. These pictures are from one on the top of a mountain, which we found while snowboarding one year. They’re pretty fun!

Akita #2 – Akita Dog Breed (秋田犬)

Akita’s second postcard is of the Akitaken, or the Akita dog breed. Similar to Shiba dogs, also from Japan, they are considered loyal and protective, and are good working dogs. Probably the most famous Akita dog is Hachiko, a dog whose statue stands outside Shibuya station. You can read more on Hachiko and Akita dogs here.

Oodate, the town where Hachiko came from, has its own Hachiko statue outside Oodate station as well as another with several Akita. When I visited, I took some pictures of the statues along with the cute Akita dog mascot used around town.

Hachiko statue in the foreground, the other statue showing a family of Akita in the back

Cute cartoon Akita around town

In Oodate, consider a visit to the Dog Museum where another statue of Hachiko sits. Of course, you can visit his statue in Oodate outside the station as well, or in Shibuya. You can even see Hachiko himself (stuffed that is) at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. And if you’re around Oodate in May, don’t forget to see the annual dog show during Golden Week held in Keijo Park.

Akita #1: Namahage (なまはげ)

Only a few more days until 2015, and I can’t believe the year has gone so fast! Today’s postcard takes us up north to Akita prefecture, whose Namahage demons come out on New Year’s Eve looking for all the children who have been lazy during the year. Will the Namahage come for you? I’m pretty sure I’m out of luck!

Like Namahage? This is a great site with lots of information on the origins and current practices of the Namahage for those interested in learning more, and you can also watch a great video about it here produced by NHK for their great 5 minute Fudoki series.

A namahage wall hanging I bought in Akita, and the Namahage postcard

A namahage visited Tokyo and deigned to pose with people on the street

And another resided until recently in Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi building

Finally, some Namahage themed products from my visit to Akita a few years ago.

My visit to Akita was for the Kanto Festival in the summer, so I didn’t get a chance to see any Namahage, but even if you can’t be in Akita for New Years Eve, there are many opportunities to see Namahage. In Akita itself, in February the Namahage Sedo Festival is held, which gives participants a chance to see Namahage and get some rice cakes from them. (Watch a video about the Sedo Festival with English subtitles here) At the Namahage Museum in Oga you can experience Namahage year-round.

And if you can’t make it out to Akita yourself, consider visiting a Namahage-themed restaurant where you can eat Akita-style foods and be terrorized by Namahage yourself! here’s a short blurb about it in English, and there are restaurants like Namahage in Ginza (English here) where you can experience this. I like this video for a good idea of the restaurant, with some extra information about another Akita specialty also featured on a postcard… kiritanpo! You know, I’ll go to Tokyo in January… maybe I will get a chance to eat there myself?

Anyway, Happy New Year 2015 from Postacollect, and watch out for those Namahage New Years Eve!

Tohoku Sandai Matsuri Part 1: Akita #3 – Kanto Matsuri (秋田竿燈まつり)

Next week is the beginning of August, and the start of some of the most amazing festivals I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending here in Japan: the three great festivals of the Tohoku region, collectively known as the “Tohoku Sandai Matsuri”.

Three years ago, I took a road trip in August to see these three festivals, along with other sightseeing spots in the Tohoku region. It was an epic, unforgettable trip, and one I wish I could do again… this time with my postcards in tow! I did actually buy several on the trip, but I never thought to take pictures with them at that time. Ah, regret.

Anyway, let me talk about each festival in turn. We’ll start with Akita!

It’s really, really difficult to choose a favorite festival, but if you twist my arm I’ll say that the Kanto Matsuri was the most amazing I’ve ever seen. In this festival, men balance huge, heavy poles with lanterns on the end (called Kanto, hence the name) on their hands, heads, shoulders, or hips. These poles are VERY heavy, and yet every minute the man is able to balance, they add a longer and longer section to the end, to where the giant poles (which resemble heads of rice apparently, although they look like the sails of ships to me) tower and lean over the men and the crowd alike.

These lanterns are real, so if a pole is dropped, the lanterns must be re-lit one by one. It is a point of pride that the men don’t drop, although you can hear from the gasps of the crowd that it does happen. This festival gets you mentally invested in the men, cheering them on and commiserating a fall together. Even though the audience is only watching, you still feel a part of the festival directly, and the theatrics are the most challenging I’ve ever seen. The Kanto Matsuri has indeed earned its place as top three of Kanto!

Some pictures:

Towering over the crowds are the great Kanto of the Kanto Matsuri

Examples of a head balance

A hip balance

And a shoulder balance

Relighting the lanterns after a drop

The Kanto Matsuri is held August 3rd to 6th in Akita City, Akita Prefecture.

Next up is Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, so look for that post!