Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Igloo Festival – Kamakura Matsuri in Yokote

Japanese Igloo Festival
Kamakura Matsuri

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Kamakura Matsuri – Japanese Igloo Festival in the northern Japanese city of Yokote

In the small city of Yokote in northern Japan, the citizens eschew the modern conveniences of warm homes in the middle of February and pile into small snow huts known as Kamakura. It’s the Kamakura Matsuri and they’ve been doing this for over 400 years.

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Sori – old fashion sled for transporting toddlers and supplies

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Kamakura occupants wearing old fashion hanten coats or donbuku in the Akita dialect

These Kamamura-style igloos are two meters in diameter made of piled-up snow which is then later hollowed out. Inside is a charcoal brazier in the middle to keep the place warm. The temporary inhabitants of these Kamakura sit on cushions while cooking sweet mochi which is a type of a chewy rice cake and heating up a type of non-alcoholic sweet-tasting type of sake known as amazake.

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On the far side wall is a makeshift altar to Suijin-sama, the Shinto god of water. One of the origins of the festival is that one time Yokote suffered from a lack of drinking water and the Kamakura were erected to get Suijin-sama’s attention. Suijin-sama’s attention is also requested in the form of rain in order to provide enough water for the coming planting season.

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Visitors are invited to enter the Kamakura and freely partake of the mochi and amazake. Many of the occupants of the Kamakura are rather short. This is due to the fact that many local children play house in the snow huts. They are the hosts and hostesses which explains why it’s hard to find hot sake or beer in many of the Kamakura. The ones with bigger inhabitants will sometimes have the necessary liquid refreshment.

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Cooking mochi

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In addition to the charcoal braziers, the locals stay warm by wearing a straw cape called mino and a traditional winter coat known as a hanten. Hanten is a short winter coat with thick cotton padding which became popular in the 18th Century. In the Akita dialect it is called a donbuku or donbugu by older generations.

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Yokote Castle 

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Most of the Kamakura snow huts can hold up to about 4-6 people but at the end of the evening I ended up in one that held 17 people! These were all full grown people so there was booze a-plenty leaving me very warm that cold night but with a raging headache the next morning.

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The Kamakura Festival is a simple but beautiful festival and it’s very friendly and inviting. The festival is held every year February 15th and 16th from 6pm to 9pm.

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Hundreds of miniature kamakura dot the city of Yokote

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February 27, 2010 Posted by | Akita, festival, japan, japanese culture, Kamakura Matsuri, matsuri, snow, snow festival, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, Yokote | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival in Hirosaki

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival
Brightening up the Winter Sky

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Snow Lantern Festival of Hirosaki

Winters are long in Tohoku, the northern region of mainland Japan. Snow and ice are common fare there. A skier’s boon but a common man’s burden. In ages past before sports skiing and winter fashion, winter was something to be dreaded and suffered through. It is no wonder that a multitude of snow festivals dot the Tohoku region. These festivals are the locals’ way of making Winter seem little less unfriendly and little less bleak.

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Hirosaki Castle

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One such festival takes place in the city of Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture which is the northernmost area of the Japanese mainland. Capitalizing on the beauty of winter, residents of Hirosaki create lanterns made completely made of snow in early February.

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The lanterns for the most part resemble the type of lantern found in Japanese gardens and shrines. There are hundreds of these spread through the grounds of Hirosaki Castle. Some of the snow lanterns however are rather avant-garde shaped with just a hint of the essence of a traditional stone lantern.

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Avant-Garde Snow Lantern

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Mickey Mouse Snow Lantern Shows Off Japanese Obsessive Love for all Things Disney

Where in the stone lanterns there would be empty spaces for the placing of candles, painted portraits are set. The portraits resemble closely that of Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival in Early August. The Neputa Festival consists of large oval shaped floats with painted scenes from Japanese and Chinese stories.

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Snow Lantern with Mt. Iwaki

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The Snow Lantern Festival’s portraits depict the faces of Japanese women, samurai, and legendary Chinese heroes from the works of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh. In the evening, they are illuminated from within much in the same way the Neputa floats are.

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While the Neputa Festival goes back centuries, the Snow Lantern Festival goes back only decades – three to be exact. The Festival started in 1977 as a way to bring the community together during the long cold winter. It has since become one of the five biggest snow festivals in the Tohoku area.

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One of the few non-lantern structures to be seen at the festival

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Throughout the Festival, local volunteers patrol the grounds looking to repair the lanterns and clearing the pathways. They place the portraits on the lanterns and fasten them in place with short bamboo sticks. Across the old moat, dozens of small kamakura – or snow huts – are set up each with an individual candle.

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A Volunteer Repairs a Snow Lantern

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Three hundred miniature Kamakura snow huts dot the the bank of the castle moat

Hirosaki’s Snow Lantern Festival may not be a major extravaganza like the Snow Festival a little further north in Sapporo but it has a pleasant charm of its own. The Snow Lantern Festival in this respect represents the Japanese character best – simple but elegant; the quintessential concept of Japanese wabi-sabi.

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The only drawback to all this charm and elegance, however, is the music they choose to play in the background. Instead of playing traditional Japanese music particularly the guitar-like shamisen which Hirosaki is known for, they play less than quality modern music that is a cross between old style enka and modern pop music from mediocre artist without financial clout to sue the city for playing their music.

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Music aside, the illuminated snow lanterns and the miniature kamakura snow huts with Hirosaki Castle as a backdrop make for a winter fairy-tale land.

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February 22, 2009 Posted by | culture, event, festival, hirosaki, history, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, snow, snow festival, snow lantern festival, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Otaru – Snow Gleaming Festival

Otaru Lights Up the Winter Night
Historic Japanese town’s Snow Festival smaller but no less spectacular than Sapporo’s


Visitors walk along Otaru’s Canal, all lit up

Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri — Snow Matsuri — may get all of the international press, and rightly so because of its incredible colossal snow sculptures that dwarf visitors, but neighboring Otaru has a snow festival of its own that, while small and humble, shines or rather gleams in its own right. It is known, appropriately enough, as the Snow Gleaming Festival – Yukiakari no Michi.


A message from Otaru’s citizens

In the daytime, Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri far outshines Otaru’s festival, but at night Otaru puts up some fierce competition in the romantic department. At night Otaru glows from the thousands of candles placed in simple snow structures spread throughout the town, lending it a graceful, magical-like quality.


Snowball modern art

In many ways, Otaru’s Snow Gleaming Festival in its simplicity better represents Japan than does Sapporo’s grandiose Yuki Matsuri. Traditionally, Japanese have often preferred simple austere beauty to that of the grand and ostentatious. The elaborate Toshogu Shrine in Nikko and the dazzling Golden Pavilion in Kyoto are the exceptions, not the rule. The mammoth snow sculptures in Sapporo require weeks and thousands of workers to build. In Otaru, sometimes all that is required is a small hole in the snow and a handmade candle in order to achieve the desired affect.


A Snowman Valentine

Visitors can participate in the festival by purchasing handmade candles and placing them among the many small snow sculptures that dot Otaru.

Among Japanese visitors to both snow festivals, some have the feeling that Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri dominates the day but Otaru’s Yukiakari no Michi rules the night unquestionably.


A Snow King Kong in Snowy New York


simple but effective


Snow-Fried Chicken, Anyone?

January 28, 2007 Posted by | entertainment, festival, hokkaido, japan, life, matsuri, otaru, snow, snow festival, snow gleaming, travel, winter, yuki matsuri, yukiakari no michi | 4 Comments

Sapporo’s Snow Festival: Wintry Delight

Yuki Matsuri: A Frozen Delight
Sapporo’s Gigantic Snow And Ice Sculptures

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The Great Buddha of Bagua Mountain representing Taiwan

Every year huge crowds descend upon Sapporo, the capital city of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, to gaze and gawk at staggeringly huge monuments constructed of snow and ice during Sapporo’s week-long Yuki Matsuri — Snow Festival. Numerous sculptures of ice and snow of various sizes are on display day and night. Some sculptures are small and require only a small number of builders to construct, while others are of such enormous proportions that they require thousands of workers to complete them.

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A bird’s eye view of the Yuki Matsuri in Odori Park

Sculpture content runs a wide gamut of themes. One can see popular anime (animation) characters, depictions of Japanese TV celebrities, movie characters, Japanese castles, mythical creatures, and so on. Some of them enact scenes from movies or books, sporting events, or popular folktales from around the world.

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Two snow sculptures that illustrate the attention to detail by their builders

The history of the festival dates back to 1950. It started simply with a group of high school students in the post-war era building a number of snow structures that gained the attention of other residents. It quickly became a yearly event. In 1955 the self-defense forces lent their aid and expertise and today they continue to contribute with two large structures and one medium one.

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Sapporo eagerly awaits the release of the film: “Narnia”

The biggest draws of the festival are the massive snow sculptures that tower over visitors and dominate the area. These enormous ones often display a scene or a landscape. On average, they stand 15 meters high and 20 to 30 meters wide. The largest one ever built at the festival was in 1972, the year that Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics. The sculpture was 25 meters high and, aptly enough, represented Gulliver among the diminutive Lilliputians. The cost for such gigantic construction projects can run upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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The Royal Exhibition Building of Australia, recently named a World Heritage site

The Yuki Matsuri is held the second week of February, but the planning for it begins as far back as July. At this time, designs are considered by groups for the next year’s festival. Once a theme has been selected, if a design is based on an actual building, group representatives will travel there to collect data and even blueprints to aid them in their construction. Models of the projects are then made. Later these models along with models of past projects are displayed at the Snow Festival Museum.

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Mythical Creatures depicted in ice in the Susukino Entertainment district

Fresh snow is trucked in when the actual building process is set to begin. Several thousand truckloads are needed every festival. The Gulliver sculpture from 1972 alone used over a thousand truckloads. The snow is packed into frames and left for a week or so to form into solid blocks of snow. Therefore, anyone thinking they could leap onto one of these snow sculptures and receive a soft landing would find themselves rudely surprised, not too mention in a hospital, perhaps.

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Angkor Wat – one of the most popular sculptures this festival

Carving begins in rough fashion with a lot of hacking out of excess snow before the refining touches are begun. Molds are made for those projects requiring reproduction of similar designs, such as with Japanese castle sculptures. The builders begin at the top and work their way down. Once completed, finishing touches are applied with fresh snow slightly melted. It can take up to a month sometimes to finish one of these massive sculptures. Touch-up work is generally done every night during the festival to keep the sculptures’ design integrity intact from the effects of the weather.

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Ice Karaoke Bar – sing “Great Balls of Fire” through chapped blue lips

The snow sculptures are displayed in Sapporo’s Odori Park which stretches several blocks west of the Sapporo TV Tower, an imitation of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. South of Odori, visitors can view ice sculptures in the Susukino entertainment district. Some of the sculptures have a more functional purpose, as they are constructed to become temporary food stalls and even a small karaoke bar!

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Teen golf-pro sensation Ai Miyazato from Okinawa gets her own Snow Sculpture

For visitors who like to watch a little destruction, staying a few days following the festival allows one to watch the dismantling and demolishing of all the sculptures. As mentioned before, a destructive-minded visitor should think of participating only if they have a wrecking ball or bulldozer on hand, as these sculptures are quite solid.

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Three Sculptures built by International participants from Australia, Korea, and China

Snow Sculpture represents history and unity 
First Buddhist Temple in Japan celebrated

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A Snow Sculpture depicting Horyuji Temple

The Snow Sculpture representing the oldest buddhist temple in Japan embraces Asian unity via Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced to China from India and later it was transmitted to Korea. In the 6th Century, Buddhism made its way over to Japan.

The Emperor Yomei decreed a temple should be built to house a Buddhist image. This temple was the Horyuji Temple built in 607 AD. UNESCO has listed the temple as the world’s oldest wooden structure.

Some more Photos:

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Ampan Man – Superhero who keeps your bread fresh or something to that effect

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The Legendary Hard Gay Gets His Own Snow Sculpture

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The world famous … what was this thing called again?

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January 26, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, festival, hokkaido, ice sculptures, japan, matsuri, sapporo, snow, snow festival, travel, winter, yuki matsuri | 5 Comments