Kamakura. It’s one of those words I’d never heard until I went to Yokote in north Japan.
Snow was falling as I arrived in the city, 260 miles from Tokyo. Softly at first, like a scene from a story book, before whipping itself into airborne swirls that revealed a thousand miniature igloos sprouting up from the school grounds. Among the bright white and inky darkness, I watched Yokote throw itself into its kamakura matsuri – a two day festival studded with snowflakes, sake and most of all – igloos.
Winters are often harsh in this part of Japan, but this one had dented the record books. Nearly two meters of snow had stacked up this year and gray, stale snow still loomed high over traffic lights and signposts. Every sidewalk and weighed-down public space served as a reminder of the frosty hardship Yokote had endured.
What locals weren’t to know, of course, and nor was I, was that in a few weeks time a devastating earthquake would strike a few miles east of Sendai, the region’s capital. The earthquake would cause a tsunami that would go on to claim the lives of over 15 000 people and bring Japan into the world’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Yokote, as it turned out, would be spared from direct damage. Yet the lives of the people who live here would clearly never be the same. Of course, neither I nor the children who dipped ladles into hot cauldrons of sweet rice drinks could predict this as the snow fell that night.
I spotted my first full-size igloo, or kamakura, beside a bus stop and was anxious to step inside. Shioji, my interpreter and friend, pulled me away and hauled me onto the minibus. In a voice fresh from a 1950s suspense movie, she assured me that the best was yet to come.
The bus climbed slowly yet steadily through the night sky.
We passed a field of kennel-sized igloos built by the local High School before lumbering over a frosted river. From the window, the landscape blurred, lost in a scribble of black forked branches and the clouds from my breath as it cooled on the glass.
Eventually, we reached the castle. As a Brit, I’m used to my castles made from earthy stone with jaw-tooth turrets, but this one had smooth white walls and its curved slate roof reached into the sky like an overgrown wedding cake.
Shioji and I zig-zagged along the path, our shadows long and wild in the kamakura candlelight.
Just before the castle, we reached a full size igloo, domed and grand with a welcoming amber light.
I ducked my head and went on in.
Three pairs of eyes greeted me.
The girls, aged between twelve and thirteen, wore scarlet winter coats and scarves. Their hands toasted rice cakes over a stove made of snow, and curls of calligraphy paper rested on an altar behind them.
They giggled, handed me a rice cake and started chatting.
Like all good traditions, the kamakura matsuri’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. For more than 400 years, the children of Yokote have offered hot rice drinks to strangers (with shots of sake for the most deserving adults) in the name of pleading with the gods to bring them an early spring. Or water. Or scaring the birds away from the crops. Or, they giggle a little more, something like that.
After a while, they want their photo taken with me. Tourists aren’t unknown in this part of Japan, but a blonde visitor in a ski jacket still stands out. They make Vs with their fingers and beam a row of lovely cheesy smiles.
It’s hard not to get swept along with the general goodwill here tonight. In another kamakura, I find the lads about town, age sixteen or so. They hand me a cup of amazake, the local warm rice drink, and wonder whether I’ll swap it with some sake on their behalf.
Across from the rows of traditional kamakura, some enterprising souls have broken away from the mould. Instead of domed igloos, blue lights on an igloo beam in the shape of a heart, while Donald Duck presides over a wall of upside down kamakura.
Huddling around a stove to keep warm, I catch up with the architects of the wintry extravaganza: the igloo builders themselves. Builders, farmers and lawyers for the rest of the year, they come out of kamakura retirement early each February to shovel and pack snow for the town.
But how do they make sure the igloos don’t fall down, I want to know. How do they carve such precision into the altars – and how do they manage to make Donald Duck’s beak stay so sharp?
Disappointingly, they refuse to answer. Snow thumpers, as they call themselves, keep their trade secrets, well, secret.
The sweet scent of charring rice envelops us and after enough amazake I no longer feel the cold. I watch families pass by and find it hard to believe that by tomorrow, this snow globe world will have disappeared. The snow thumpers stand on duty, ready to demolish the igloos as soon as the crowds disperse.
Melting kamakura and dissolving giant snow ducks pose a risk to the community – and that’s something that Yokote will not tolerate.
Still, there’s always next year, when the kamakura will return. And after more than 400 years of sake and snow, neither an earthquake nor a tsunami will be able to stop them.
Disclosure and other bits and bobs: I first published this article in Desert Leaf magazine. I travelled to Japan on this occasion as a guest of the JNTO As ever, as always, I was free to write about whatever I liked.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com