The Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手の雪祭り, Yokote no
Yuki Matsuri) is a tradition that is over 400 years old. The
festival happens in Yokote city that is located in the
southeastern corner of Akita Prefecture. The word
kamakura translates to snow houses, which are a form of
igloos. This festival happens every year on February 15
and 16. There are over 100 kamakura scattered around
the city and most of them are hosted by children. It is
said that the Yokote Kamakura Festival is a result of two
ancient traditions. The first comes from the locals burning
the New Year decorations as a way to return something
to the gods. The second is based on the children who
used to scare away the birds from the crops to prevent
damage. The locals believe that children who become
hosts in the kamakura will please the water deity.
When a kamakura is made they first establish the perimeter and then they pile up the snow while compressing it. The height reaches about 2 meters high and the locals leave them overnight to solidify. The compacted snow is then hollowed out from the side. As the kamakura is hollowed out they make sure to carve out a shrine in the rear. The shrine is built to offer and pray to the water deity for clean water towards the harvest. They also place a grass mat on the ground for people to sit on as well as a charcoal grill will be available. When entering the kamakura be sure to remove your shoes. One of the rules of the kamakura is to not consume meat or alcohol while inside. So instead they serve grilled mochi (pounded rice) and amazake (sweet rice drink). As you wait for the mochi and amazake you can engage in a conversation with the people inside to pass the time before heading out into the cold. Even though the amazake does not have alcohol contents it still warms the body. Once you are treated to the food and drink, be sure to make an offering to the water deity as thanks.
During the day the kamakura are empty, but at night each one is illuminated with a singular light. By the river shores there are thousands of mini kamakura. Each of the mini structures has a candle in them, which adds to the beautiful illumination of Yokote city. You can see the lights at the top of Yokote Castle that is four stories tall. In the winter the observation deck is open from 10 am to 9pm allowing visitors the opportunity to see the city in both the day and night time. Aside from the snow huts all around the city there is the festival area, which operates during the day all the way into the night. You can also learn about making one of the kamakura through a hands on session. At Minami Elementary School there is a play area set up for the kids made out of snow like slides. When the festival ends the hundreds of kamakura will be destroyed, but you can still experience one at the Kamakurakan Hall all year round.