The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan

How We Found Warmth Inside an Igloo in Japan

Experience

When you hear the word ‘igloo’, Japan is probably not the first country that comes to mind. And yet one snowy day in February, we found ourselves cozily ensconced inside a kamakura, Japan’s version of an igloo, nibbling on grilled rice cakes served by the snow hut’s friendly inhabitants.

The surreal experience was brought to us by the Yokote Kamakura Festival, an incredibly charming celebration that takes place in the unassuming little city of Yokote in Japan’s rural Akita prefecture. For two days every year, the normally quiet streets bustle with happy energy, as residents set up inviting snow huts, colorful food stalls, and quirky snow sculptures in key areas between the train station and city castle.

It’s quite a sight to see during the day, but the atmosphere turns even more magical at night, when the snow huts are suffused with a warm light, and hundreds of miniature kamakura sparkle to life on the grounds of an elementary school and along the banks of Yokote river. I think what makes the festival especially unforgettable is the unique way it could shift your mood in an instant. One moment we’d be caught up in the infectious merriment of the locals, and in the next, fall into silent and reverent awe over a scene of incandescent beauty.

It certainly felt like a privilege to be able to share in this beloved local tradition. There is an air of intimacy and authenticity to the festivities, which have remained largely untainted by commercialism over the years. Despite the cold temperatures, the residents seemed always ready to wrap us up in their irrepressible warmth. From the gracious Airbnb host who drove us to the castle, to the children who welcomed us into their snow hut, to the adult organizers who gave away freebies in exchange for a hug or a high five. These kindnesses were almost childlike in their simplicity and purity.

So despite the fact that Yokote’s Kamakura Festival is over 450 years old, it seems uniquely designed to bring out the wide-eyed, goofy-grinned, open-hearted kid in all of us. Reminding us, perhaps, that we can never be too old, to experience the world with childlike wonder.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - Two kamakura (Japanese igloo)

Two kamakura (i.e. Japanese igloo) by the steps leading up to Yokote Castle

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - kamakura and Yokote Castle are illuminated

The scene gets even prettier at night when both the kamakura and Yokote Castle are illuminated

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - Kids and adults come out to play

Kids and adults come out to play by the Yokote Minami Elementary School

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - The tourist welcoming committee strikes a pose

The tourist welcoming committee strikes a pose, ready to offer treats in exchange for hugs and high-fives

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - Yokote Castle towers above a warm and cozy kamakura.

Yokote Castle towers above a warm and cozy kamakura, where people gather around an altar dedicated to a Shinto water god

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - A peek inside Kamakura

A peek inside where locals and tourists gather around a charcoal brazier to enjoy rice cakes and sweet rice wine

WSE Travel -The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - A young woman keeps the candle burning

A young woman keeps the candle burning inside one of many snow lanterns by Yokote River

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - at night the kamakura and Yokote Castle are illuminated.

The scene gets even prettier at night when both the kamakura and Yokote Castle are illuminated

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - Hundreds of mini kamakura light up the banks of Yokote River

Hundreds of mini-kamakura light up the banks of Yokote River

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - Hundreds of mini-kamakura light up the banks of Yokote River

Hundreds of mini-kamakura light up the banks of Yokote River

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GO – Getting There

Japan’s train system is thankfully so efficient, that no matter how off-the-beaten-path a destination may be, there’s bound to be a train that will get you there.

To get to Yokote from Tokyo, hop on the Akita Shinkansen which will take you to Omagari Station in under 3.5 hours. From there, an hourly local train on the JR Ou line will bring you to Yokote Station in just 20 minutes. To save on fares, you may get the Japan Rail Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass, or JR East South Hokkaido Pass, which all cover this journey. Just choose the pass that fits your overall itinerary.

Once in Yokote itself, most of the festival’s main areas can be reached on foot by avid walkers. From Yokote Station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the Fureai Center, which serves as the festival’s main headquarters. From there, an additional 10 minutes will bring you to Minami Elementary School. You can then head towards the Janosaki Bridge over Yokote River (800 meters), before walking uphill towards Yokote Castle (1 km).

If all that walking is a bit daunting (as it was for us), you can always take the shuttle bus that will take you from one area to another, free of charge. Just be prepared to stand in the cold for a bit as you wait for the ride to arrive.

Check out the Google Maps Link to Yokote Station here.

WSE Travel - The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan - Map

The Magic of Yokote’s Kamakura Matsuri, Japan – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Make your own kamakura
Drop by Komiyoji park to try your hand at shaping your own mini-kamakura from snow. The activity is available at 11am and 2pm on February 15, and at 2pm on February 16, but schedules may vary so be sure to check the event calendar before you go.

Watch a free cultural show
A lot of activity during the festival happens inside and around the Yokote Fureai Center. It’s home to a museum where you can find kamakura preserved in below freezing temperatures year-round. During the festival, they may have local performances for you to enjoy. If not, the heated building is still a welcome retreat for those who wish to take a break from the cold. There’s a souvenir shop on the ground level where you can buy only-in-Yokote treats and trinkets.

Explore the castle
Perhaps the most photogenic kamakura are those that have Yokote’s small but pretty castle standing resplendent in the background. Though normally closed during winter, Yokote Castle is open from 10am to 9pm during the festival. For a small fee, you can enter the castle and enjoy sweeping views of the city from the observation deck on top.

Catch another festival
Right after the Kamakura Festival is Yokote’s Bonden Festival. A bonden is a colorfully decorated wooden staff that stands about 16 feet tall and carries prayers for a divine spirit. On February 17, they are paraded through the streets and brought to Asahi Okayama Shrine as an offering to the gods.

If the dates align, you may also be able to take the train to nearby Yuzawa (about a 30-minute ride away) to witness an endearing little festival dedicated to dogs: the Akita Inukko Matsuri. It’s held on the second weekend of February.

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Stay – Accommodation

If you want the fullest and most authentic experience of Yokote’s warm hospitality, you can check Airbnb to see which residents are opening their doors to tourists. We stayed with a lovely Japanese family at Jumonji, a 12-minute train ride from Yokote Station, and they were probably the most gracious hosts we’d ever met.

Also in the same area is Hostel&Bar CAMOSIBA, where you can choose between dormitory-type bunk beds or private rooms with futon mattresses.

If you’re looking for more comfort and convenience, you may prefer Yokote Plaza Hotel, a 3-star hotel that’s only a 1-minute walk away from Yokote Station.

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Eat – Restaurants

Yokote is known for its delicious yakisoba, which is served with pickled vegetables and topped with a sunny-side up egg. You can try this dish from one of the many food stalls that will be set up across the Fureai Center during the festival.

There, you can also sample other traditional food such as kirintanpo (toasted skewers of mashed rice), yakiniku (grilled beef), and plump and juicy barbecued scallops.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Yokote holds its Kamakura Festival from February 15 to 16 of every year. There’s also the Bonden Festival from February 16 to 17, and the Akita Innuko Festival which takes place during the second weekend of February.

During the two days of the Kamakura Festival, the atmosphere is liveliest from 6pm to 9pm, when all the kamakura are illuminated. But if you’re not in a hurry, I’d recommend spending the entire day within the area, as we did. It was nice to go around the day when it wasn’t so crowded and you could take everything in at a more leisurely pace. By 10am, the castle will already be open, food stalls will be up, and the Fureai Center will welcome anyone who wants to poke their head in and hang out.

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Safety – Possible risks

Japan what to expect;  Japan is one of the safest countries to travel in, with its remarkably low crime rate and abundant anecdotes of tourists losing all manner of items only to have them returned by good samaritans.

However, being cautious never hurt anyone. Crowded trains may be hiding a chikan (i.e. groper), so it pays to be alert and mindful of your surroundings. In case of emergency, remember that the Japanese word for police is koban, while tasukete is the word for help.

As for physical danger, watch out for paths that have been made extra slippery by snow. Wearing snow boots is a must so you don’t end up falling and hurting yourself.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

There’s no charge to enjoy the Kamakura Festival. Even the shuttle bus that goes around the different areas is complimentary. To enter Yokote Castle, however, there is a minimal fee of 100 yen (about $1 USD). When you enter a kamakura, you are also expected to make a small donation as an offering to the local water deity. Even just 500 yen (about $5 USD) will do, but feel free to be as generous as you like.

Apart from accommodations, your biggest expense will most likely be transportation. The one-way train fare from Tokyo to Yokote can cost upwards of 16,000 yen (about $150 USD). To save on travel expenses, you may want to consider getting a Japan Rail Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass, or JR East South Hokkaido Pass, depending on your itinerary.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Kamakura may look like little play houses, but they’re actually temporary homes for local deities. Each one contains an altar in honor of the Shinto god of water. Be respectful if you get invited in, and remember to take off your shoes before entering. Enjoy the rice cake and sweet rice wine that will be offered to you, but don’t forget to leave a small monetary donation before you go.

The Japanese are sticklers for manners and good behavior, so be extra considerate of the people around you. Talking loudly in public places is discouraged, whether you’re on a train or in a restaurant. Of course, the rules are a little more relaxed during festivals, but it’s still best to avoid being disruptively rowdy. In food courts and fast food joints, you’re expected to tidy up the table for the next occupants. When in doubt, study what the locals around you are doing and follow suit.

The Japanese also take their trash segregation very seriously. Always check the signs and instructions to make sure you’re disposing of your garbage correctly.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

The Kamakura Festival will leave you with some pretty amazing memories, but to truly enjoy the experience, it’s best to be prepared while keeping your expectations open. We’re talking igloos here, so temperatures will be freezing cold (usually an average of 3°C, but check the forecast for updates) and the weather will be erratic. Dress appropriately, tread carefully and be ready to walk some distance in snowy conditions.

Remember, too, that the festival is a local tradition, so it’s not as big and flashy as some of the other matsuri you may be used to. The festivities are a bit more low-key and intimate, which for me made the experience all the more precious, priceless, and dear. There is so much magic to be found in Yokote, for those whose hearts are open to it.

Additional Resources
http://www.hyperdia.com – A nifty resource for train schedules and fares
http://www.city.yokote.lg.jp/foreign_language.html – Yokote’s official website
http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/ – Find out which rail pass if best suited for your trip

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This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

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