An Igloo Festival in Japan

Igloo Festival Yokote Kamakura011 Kamakura

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.

Kamakura Matsuri – An Igloo Festival

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.

Igloo Festival Yokote Kamakura008

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.

 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.

Heart - gloo Festival Yokote Kamakura010

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.

Rice cakes at an igloo festival 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.

Serious for the camera...inside an igloo

Serious for the camera…inside an igloo

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.

The Igloo Builders

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.

Child inside an igloo in Japan

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.

Igloo Festival Yokote Kamakura007

Igloo festivals last for such a short time

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.

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14 Responses to An Igloo Festival in Japan

  1. Pigafe March 23, 2013 at 2:18 am #

    Impresionant photos and very interesting article. I love the igloos.
    Cheers!

  2. Tracy Z March 23, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Wow that looks awesome!

    • Abi King March 27, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

      And it looked so much better to actually be there…

  3. Sofie March 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Such amazing photos. I’d never heard of that tradition before. Intriguing…

    • Abi King March 27, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

      There are quite a few snow sculpture festivals about once you head north of Tokyo in the winter. The Tohoku ones are less famous but still so, so captivating…

  4. Red Hunt March 27, 2013 at 1:34 am #

    Wow, amazing stuff! I’ve been itching to go winter camping and possibly build my own igloo to sleep in…but, umm, I don’t think it would be anything like these cool igloos!

    • Abi King March 27, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

      Well, if you added your own Donald Duck beak to an igloo you’d just be showing off ;-)

  5. Pooja Shean April 27, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Wow. Just landed here and fell in love with your site. Amazing. I am blog rolling you if you dont mind. A travel enthusiast myself, I am enjoying your travelogues.

    • Abi King July 10, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      Blog roll on! Apologies for the slow reply – I was ill when I published this and seem to have dropped the ball a bit. Welcome!

  6. Gina April 29, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    Great article! I would have loved to have done this when I was in Japan. I lived there for 9 nine years. I only made to Sapporo once in those 9 years.

    • Abi King July 10, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Sapporo certainly is the place that makes it into the headlines…Hardly anyone knows about these ice and snow festivals in Tohoku, which is a shame as they’re so beautiful!

  7. TeacherGig August 11, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    Awesome post! I knew that people did snow sculptures all over the world, but I thought that igloos were a strictly Inuit thing limited to northern Canada. I was always bizarrely patriotic about it. Now my tender dreams have been shattered in all the best ways.

    The photos are truly spectacular. And the grilling rice cakes are making me hungry. A few Japanese BBQ restaurants do those here (grilled, then dipped in peanut and honey), and they are quite simply one of the most awesome things ever.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Abi King August 12, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

      Ah – I’m kind of sad and kind of pleased to have shattered your tender dreams! Mind you, the tribes in northern Japan apparently have a lot in common with the Inuit of Northern America…it’s assumed it dates back to a time when they were connected, before Japan floated south. I’m fascinated to hear your story though. And, of course, now eager to see the ones you describe in Canada…

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