If you are looking for a perfect winter gateway in the Tohoku region, make your way to Akita Prefecture. It’s a stunning winter wonderland of Japan with a list of winter festivals that you should discover on your own. Don’t just spend your time watching them on YouTube. Feel the crazy uplifting atmosphere of the festivals by attending them at the right time.

Kamihinokinai paper balloon matsuri, Semboku city. Photo Credit: Akitafan.com.

There is no best time to visit Tohoku, so is for Akita. Visiting Akita’s incredible attractions is a great choice for both locals and foreign tourists. There, you are offered to explore the beauty of the winter festivals along with experiencing some of Japan’s best onsen facility, local foods and so on. With its historic landmarks, local foods, hot springs, snow matsuri, Akita has been designated a perfect winter holiday destination on Honshu Island in northern Japan.

Indeed the area is beautiful and widely known for its scenic natural beauty. Besides, it’s renowned for the birth place of Akita Inu (dog) breed. Just to see a glimpse of Akita’s harsh winter season, you should watch the first minute of the movie: Hachiko Monogatari, released in 1987. It’s one of the top Japanese films where you find a true story of a dog’s loyalty to its master. Bear in mind that it’s a quite heartbreaking movie though.

Are you ready to explore Akita’s top winter festivals? Follow me then!

1) Yokote Kamakura Festival

Kamakura – the igloo like snow houses. Photo Credit: Yokote City.

With a history of more than 400 years, Yokote Kamakura Festival is said to be one of the must-see winter matsuri (festival) in Japan. It’s celebrated every year on February 15 and 16 in the city of Yokote. Akita has some amazing attractions and events to be visited year round, but the things you would love most are its awe-inspiring winter festivals.

The word “Kamakura” refers igloo-like snow houses or snow huts. In the festival, both large and small kamakuras are put up across the city, making it one of the most mystic winter wonderlands of Japan. That’s truly something to behold! Besides, there you will be pretty happy to see some of the famous Japanese fictional characters’ snow sculptures.

Each miniature kamakura is light up with candle and they look incredibly mind-blowing in the evening and at night. Visitors are offered to take a stroll along the streets of the city to feel the atmosphere of the festival. It will be a mind-boggling experience while roaming around the areas of Yokote Castle, Yokote riversides, Minami elementary school, Doro Koen Park, and Kamakurakan Hall.

Visitors are invited to go inside a kamakura, where they are offered to taste sweet amazake (sake), and rice cake (mochi) by the children (host of each kamakura). Usually, each kamakura has an alter, dedicated to the water diety, to whom people pray for ample water, abundant harvest, safety and success in life. For more info please read this post. Thank you.

2) Hiburi Kamakura Festival

You will be amazed seeing their demonstration of swinging fireballs. Photo Credit: Akitafan.com.

February – the month of winter festival in Japan, is a great time to embark on a trip to Akita Prefecture. At the time, some cities around the prefecture become very lively with their thrilling winter festivals. The festivals are great source to learn Akita’s winter tradition while immersing in some of Akita’s most popular tourist attractions.

Held each February 13th and 14th in the historic Kakunodate Samurai District, the Hiburi Kamakura Festival is an event that showcases nothing more than swinging fireballs (the bales of flame) over participant’s heads and around their bodies. It’s a quite appealing scene to be witnessed where the guys out there play with the fire, and dangerous at the same time. It’s the old ritual performed to banish the bad fortunes and evil spirits of the year. In fact, it’s believed that swinging fireballs around themselves brings good fortune and success in every aspect of their lives. Seriously you can clean away your bad luck.

You can try it yourself like the local people demonstrate, as everyone is allowed to hold a bale of hay with fire attached to a one-meter long straw rope. If you are asked to try it by any locals at the sites, think twice before you attempt to swing it. Before you do it, carefully observe how everything is done, and follow the instructions given by them. The faster you whirl it the faster the bale catches the fire. You need to toss the whole thing into the bonfire once the fireball starts to spread along the rope. Be quick and stay safe!

3) Paper Balloon Festival of Kamihinokinai

Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival. Photo Credit: Akitafan.com.

Akita’s winter season is long as it rolls around November and continues until the end of March. Imagine yourself how long it is! It snows a lot in the prefecture, and often numerous blizzards hit the area. People there enjoy the winter by participating in a list of exciting winter events; and one of such event is called Paper Balloon Festival of Kamihinokinai.

The festival takes place in the Nishiki area of Semboku city, held on February 10th every year. Even though the origin of the festival is unknown, it’s important to let you know that it’s a hundred year old tradition followed by the people of Semboku with great honor.

About 100 colorfully painted paper balloons are lit up and then released into the night sky leaving the spectators speechless. The paintings of the lit up balloons look very graceful once they are float up into the night sky. The designs painted on the paper balloon vary; some balloons possess the pictures of samurai warriors, beautiful women and traditional woodblock prints. While on the other hand, you see people’s wishes on the balloons written by them. In fact, the aim of this festival is to make a wish of different kinds. How many wishes do you have anyway? If you want to make your wishes to come true, then experience the festival by writing your wishes on a balloon and launch it into the night sky.

4) Kariwano Giant Tug of War

Grab one of the smaller ropes attached to the giant rope and then pull hard! Photo Credit: Akitafan.com.

Kariwano Tug of War Festival is a winter event, held every year on February 10th in Daisen city, Akita Prefecture. It’s said to be the largest tug of war event in Japan. There are two giant straw ropes: male and female, made a month prior to the festival. Each rope is 80 centimeters in diameter, and weighs 10 tons. When they are tied up, it becomes about a hundred meters long rope to tug by several thousand participants.

Locals of Diasen including visitors coming from other parts of Japan divide into two groups (Red and Yellow) to be the winners of the contest. It’s believed that if Red team wins, the price of rice will increase. And if Yellow team wins, the rice harvest will be good. Is that so?!

On the day of the festival, before the main event takes place, two ropes are laid out and knotted in the middle of the street in the center of the town. Usually the pulling action begins around 9:00PM. On the both sides, each participant is to follow the instructions of the men who stand on the rope. As a participant, you will have to pull smaller ropes that are attached to the main rope. Pull it with rhythm and enjoy every second of it. If you think that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, then why don’t you join in?

It’s very cold out there and snow continues to fall. In such harsh winter conditions, you need to keep warm. Taking this into account, pull one of the smaller ropes and feel the comfort. Indeed that will create the feeling of relief in a cold weather.

No matter which side wins, this winter event is loaded with many excitements and offers visitors experience the local tradition that has a history of more than 500 years. Please note the purpose of the festival is to determine the rice harvest of the coming year.

5) Namahage Sedo Matsuri

Namahage dance performance in fornt of the large bonfire. Photo Credit: Akitafan.com.

Namahage Sedo Festival would have been the greatest Halloween night event of all if it had celebrated on October 31st. Indeed, the scary loud shouts of Namahage, screams of the children, large bonfire (Sedo fire), and the sounds of taiko drums, make the venue quite spooky to be terrified by. The festival is one of the 5 biggest winter festivals in the Tohoku region, held every year on the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February at Shinzan Shrine in Oga City.

“Namahage” simply refers as demons who are believed to be the massager of the god. On the New Year’s Eve, they roam around the city of Oga; go from house to house looking for naughty children who are supposed to be disobedient to their parents. The Namahage of Oga has been designated a significant intangible folk asset of Japan.

On the festival day, groups young men play the role of Namahage wearing scary looking masks, costumes made of straw, carrying torch, gohei, knives, buckets, and sacred wooden wands on hands. Before they come down the snowy mountains, they are handed over the masks that have been purified by a Shinto priest. After that they get back to the mountain. In the meantime, before they set off their journey to the Shrine from the mountain, some performances are presented including a reproduction of the New Year’s ritual, and taiko drum music on the stage of the shrine. Besides, you are also offered to see Namahage odori (dance) in front of the large bonfire.

The hilarious moment that you all will be overwhelmed by is when they come down the mountains of the Oga peninsula, and then walk around the shrine grounds and through the crowds. Later the Shinto priests give them Goma-mochi (rice cake) roasted on the Sedo fire as offerings. And after that they return to the mountain where the god dwells.

6) Inukko Festival

Children in front of the shrine and Inu statues (made out of snow). Photo Credit: Akitafan.com.

Inu means dog in Japanese, while on the other hand, locals of Akita refer them as Inukko. This sounds too cute! Yuzawa, a small town known for its hot spring resorts and heavy snowfall welcomes dog lovers who wish to pray for their dogs’ health and safety to the Shinto god.

The tradition of this enlightening event is called Inukko Festival, featuring pretty impressive dog sculptures and shrine made out of snow outside of the city hall. In addition, visitors are offered to enjoy taiko drum performances, winter firework displays, night illuminations, and the foods sold by the food vendors at the venue. It’s also interesting to see many participants walk around the festive site with their beloved dogs.

The festival takes place on the second week of February for 2 days on Saturday and Sunday. If you are traveling around Akita during that period of time, make your way to Yuzawa town and experience a matsuri that is dedicated to all the dogs being taken care of their loyal masters in the city.

7) Takeuchi (Bamboo Fight) Matsuri

Fight begins! Photo Credit: Misato Town, Akita.

Japan is a land of festival. Celebration happens across the country throughout the year making the citizens inspired by its old and modern fashioned traditions.

Picture-perfect landscapes of Akita often overshadowed by its hilarious winter festivals. To probe it, you don’t have to go elsewhere, stay right there and keep reading. In fact, this post features the most astonishing winter events that Akita boats of. Don’t you think so?

One of the top recommended winter festivals to visit in Akita, Takeuchi, is known for its bizarre bamboo battle actions occurring every year in the night of February 15th. The host town is Misato, located southeastern part of Akita prefecture.

The purpose of the festival is exactly the same as the Kariwano Giant Tug of War, but the theme is different. Here the participants are divided into two teams, the North and South, each man holding a long bamboo pole (about 20 foot) to fight against the opposition team. In addition, they also wear helmets and padding for protection. Two teams are to fight for three times. The final round is the most dangerous clash when long bamboo poles are set on fire from the large bonfire.

Often it is considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals on earth. However, the battle does not let them to be enemy of each other, rather it unite them to have a peaceful life. They are the men risking their lives to represent one of Akita’s fabulous winter events. They deserve your kind gratitude for the invaluable contribution they make for this festival.