4 Weird Japanese Winter Festivals That You Can Participate In
Whirl a Burning Ball of Fire Around Your Head
Kakunodate Hiburi Kamakura, Akita Prefecture
This historical festival has been held in Kakunodate since the Edo period (1603-1868). Participants use fire, a purifying element in Japanese tradition, in order to draw away the evil spirits. Straw bags attached to a rope are set ablaze and swirled in circles around one's body.
The snowy landscape is dotted with bonfires and groups of people - locals and visitors alike - participating in the ritual.
■Participating in the FestivalNon-locals are also allowed to participate in the festival. Just go to one of the locations, pay the participation fee and get your bag of fire.
The straw bag is filled with charcoal and attached to a rope of about 1m. Follow the locals' lead and swing the rope around you. After the ritual, it is said that bringing the rope home will keep the bad luck at bay. Participation fees and conditions vary by venue. Note that some places might not be open to the public.
InformationKakunodate Hiburi Kamakura | 角館の火振りかまくら
Event date: February 14
Place: around Kakunodate, Semboku City, Akita Prefecture (MAP)
Access: 20 min. walk from JR Kakunodate Station
Things to See Nearby
Kakunodate Samurai DistrictImposing dwellings with their characteristic black fences offer an impressive scenery here. In winter, the contrast of the dark structures with the snow is a beautiful sight and the district is also lit up at night. Some buildings are open to the public. Kakunodate is also famous as a cherry blossom viewing spot in spring, making it into Japan's Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots. (MAP)
Tsurunoyu Hot Spring (Nyuto Onsen)One of the hot springs located in the Nyuto Onsen town. There are four springs on the riverside offering a rustic, Japanese-style atmosphere. We especially recommend the open-air bath where you can soak in hot water while gazing at the snow.
Address: 50 Kokuyurin, Sendatsuzawa, Tazawakotazawa, Senboku-shi, Akita (MAP)
Throw Water at Bird People
Kasedori, Yamagata Prefecture
Another folk tradition that dates back to the early Edo period, Kasedori ("straw bird") sees locals and visitors throw buckets of water at young people wearing straw coats called kendai to pray for rich harvest and prosperous business. After being here all day the cheerful chant of "Kakkakka no Kakkakka", which imitates the cry of a bird, will stick with you for quite a while.
Among all the commotion, pieces of straw often fall off the kendai. It is believed that tying one of them to the hair of a young girl will bring good fortune and grant her a mane of luscious black hair.
■Participating in the FestivalThe people who throw water at the kasedori are mainly local shop and hotel owners as it is a ritual to pray for divine favor. However if you visit the festival you'll be able to borrow a bucket and try splashing them yourself.
It's also possible to apply for participation in advance through the Kaminoyama Onsen Tourist Information Center (applications are usually open until October).
InformationKasedori | 加勢鳥
Event date: February 11
Place: around Kaminoyama-shi, Yamagata (event starts in front of Kaminoyama Castle) (MAP)
Access: 15 min. walk to Tsukioka Park (Kaminoyama Castle) from Jr Kaminoyama-Onsen Station
Website (machine-translated English available): http://yamagatakanko.com/eventdetail/?data_id=3079
Things to See Nearby
Kaminoyama OnsenThis hot spring town has a history of over 500 years. In the Edo Period it prospered as a post town (inn town for travelers). Today it consists of six hot spring towns, with hotels and traditional ryokan inns. There are also drop-in hot springs such as the Shimo-Oyu public bathhouse.
Address: districts of Shinyu, Tokamachi, Yumachi, Takamatsu, Kawasaki and Hayama in Kaminoyama-shi, Yamagata (MAP)
Zao Onsen Ski ResortIn winter this is a very popular spot because of a phenomenon known as "snow monsters". Trees in this area take on interesting shapes due to the heavy snowfall and freezing winds. During peak season it takes time to get on the ropeway, so be sure to leave plenty of time for your visit.
Address: 708-1 Zao Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata (MAP)
Join a Swearing Procession
Akutai Matsuri, Ibaraki Prefecture
Literally meaning "cursing festival", Akutai Matsuri is said to have originated in the Edo Period and there are several theories about how it started.
Some believe it was established by the feudal lord as a day where the local population could voice their complaints and dissatisfactions. Others say it was a ritual to drive away all the evil spirits and plagues through the foul language. During the festival, 13 Shinto priests dress up as Tengu (a type of Japanese legendary creature) and walk from Iitsuna Shrine to Atago Shrine, making offerings to 16 small shrines along the way.
The priests are followed by a crowd of people that shout insults and fight each other to steal the offerings.
■Participating in the FestivalAnyone can participate in this festival. Follow the priests on a 2-hour slow walk along a mountain road while joining the locals in cries of "Bakayaro!" (bastard!) and other insults. At the beginning there's a certain sense of guilt, as Japanese people very rarely express strong feelings in public, let alone swear. As the walk goes on people ease into the mindset and the cries get more and more animated. Along the way you will stop at small shrines where the priests make offerings...that people try to steal! From kids to adults everyone can participate but be warned, people are serious about it.
The final destination is Atago Shrine where priests throw rice cakes to the crowd, and the festival ends with three cries of "bakayaro!".
InformationAkutai Matsuri | 悪態まつり
Event date: the second or third Saturday of December
Place: Iitsuna Shrine - Atago Shrine, 102 Izumi, Kasama-shi, Ibaraki (MAP)
Access: 15 min. by car/60 min. walk from JR Iwama Station
Website (machine-translated English available): https://www.city.kasama.lg.jp/page/page000154.html
Things to See Nearby
Kasama Inari ShrineSaid to be one of the three major Inari shrines in Japan, Kasama Inari is dedicated to those who pray for prosperous business. In front of it, Monzen-dori Street is lined with shops that specialize in inari sushi. Make sure you try special versions like the ones with walnuts or soba. The shrine is a little far from the festival venue but it's accessible by train, so be sure to stop by. (MAP)
Kasama Craft HillsThe city of Kasama is also known for pottery called Kasama ware. Kasama Craft Hills displays and sells works by the city's leading craftsmen, and offers workshops where you can experience potter's wheel and hand-twisted pottery (reservation required).
Address: inside Kasama Geijutsu No Mori Park, 2388-1 Kasama, Kasama-shi, Ibaraki (MAP)
Build a Shrine and Burn It
Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri, Nagano Prefecture
Said to be one of the three major fire festivals in Japan, this event will make you feel the power of fire from up close.
The festival is centered around a shrine, built for the occasion using wood and hemp (construction takes 2 days). During the festival a battle is staged between two groups of villagers, one protecting the shrine and the other trying to set in on fire. In the end the shrine is burned in an invocation for good harvest, health and general fortune.
■Participating in the FestivalMingle with the jostling crowd and admire the unfolding of this intense ritual. Between the heat of the flames and the warmth of the people, all the bitter cold of winter will be gone. If you can, stick around for the day after the festival where rice cakes are grilled over the embers of the shrine. Locals believe that if you eat one you won't catch a cold for an entire year! The locals are very friendly and sharing.
InformationNozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri | 野沢温泉の道祖神祭り
Event date: January 15
Place: Toyosato, Nozawa Onsen-mura, Nagano (MAP)
Access: From JR Iiyama Station take the Nagaden Bus Iiyama, Nozawa Line bound for Nozawa Grand Hotel (40 min. ride). Get off at Nozawa Onsen, walk 5 min.
Things to See Nearby
Nozawa Onsen's Public BathsThere are a total of 13 communal baths in the village of Nozawa dating back to the Edo Period. Here you can choose between hot springs with different qualities, atmospheres, sizes and prices. The facilities are managed by the locals and are open to tourists, so make sure you observe good manners.
Address: Toyosato, Nozawa Onsen-mura, Nagano (O-yu Onsen MAP）
Jigokudani Monkey ParkA very popular spot where wild Japanese monkeys can be seen warming up in hot springs in the snow. While it is a little far away from the center of Nozawa Onsen, you should definitely stop by if you have the time.
Address: 6845 Oaza-hirao, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano (MAP)
Add Something Extra to Your Trip Plan With a Strange Winter FestivalWinter in Japan is not only about the famous snow festivals. If you visit during this period you have the chance to participate in some very unique events. We hope you liked this list! Please keep in mind that dates and venues might change each year, so be sure to check the official websites before your visit.
*The above article is based on information from January 2020.
*Images used in this article are from previous festivals.
*Event dates and information are subject to change. Please check the official websites before your visit.
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THIS ARTICLE IS BASED ON INFORMATION FROM 02 07,2020 Author：DiGJAPAN! Editorial Team