Hc : : ~ Akita: Yuzawa: Winter Festival

10 February 2002

Snow Dog House Festival

Yuzawa in the winter hosts a well known "matsuri" festival where the town is dotted with small snow shrines, and a large plaza is taken up with large snow shrines guarded by giant dogs. Like any festival this is a chance to eat cheap hearty Japanese food, drink plenty of sake, and walk about with kids and old folks alike; all out and about to celebrate the last vestiges of tradition.

It's a beautiful spectacle - lively kids in snowsuits clamboring over large stout snow dogs, while temporary architectural treasures stand proud behind. In the close distance, fireworks illuminate the wooded hills coated in snow. A strong wind blows fresh snow coming between all light to give the air a white glow. The smell of burning wood, rosting corn, roasting meat, and stewing fish comes through the weather.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo

This matsuri, I'm imagining, was probably originally intended on some appeal to the winter gods. It comes in the midst of February, when the snows in this area threaten to cave in rooves and send more people southward. So building little snow shrines was probably a way to ask that the snow and winter fall favorably to make for a mild winter and a good rice planting in the spring.

This year the winter gods responded by throwing a party of their own; as we walked between the tiny temples and shrines, and sat asride large dogs, a fierce wind blew and endless torrent of fresh snow. It was beautiful and biting.

Typical city fireworks are a much more astonishing sight when set off from a scant hundred meters away. Quite loud. And then I looked up and saw that these green, and blue, and bright fires in the sky were lighting up a small snow deep valley between two hills topped with trees. It was a beautiful reflection in the snow.

Whatever the feelings of Japanese is for the small gods surrounding them, clearly the vendors pay homage by dragging their goods out to the midst of the throngs and setting up tables hoping to ply services to the galloping goodtimers. I was easily lassoed by one such vendor, encouraged to taste burning spicy garlic, and pickled flowers, and three ways of Daikon. And then we posed for a picture together.

All the while I was talking and tasting, bits of water fell from the plastic awning onto my bag. I didn't pay it much mind. By the time I turned to leave, the water had frozen my bag into a brittle shell.

The houses themselves were immense impressive snow structures. It seemed the snow had been packed hard and then shaved, carved and sculpted. The substance resembled some kind of pure white marble, rather than any sort of ice or anything so impermanent as snow. Even hoards of Children rolling and climbing and jumping did little to affect the austerity of some of these rather majestic and subtly crafted winter edifices. I wonder what happens when the festival ends.

Scampering children molested the fixtures and the dogs. Kids climbed up on the dogs. They wriggled between the dog legs. Kids jumped over little snow-carved fences. They ripped out snow-made fenceposts and rolled them around. And then the kids ran over to a giant snow mound constructed for sledding and road sheets of plastic over bumps and jumps. The gods would have been pleased by their spirit.

In each of these structures, a small niche is carved for an offering. Usually some form of alcohol, candles, perhaps some sweets, maybe in the modeled form of the white guardian dogs. With alcohol sitting out like that, an offering to the Gods, I am always lead to think that it is for the homeless who might wander by later; they will consume the alcohol and so the gods will find their thirst slaked.

But it would be a fool that would linger out in this cold. The pleasure of being amidst the people has its limits as they too are leaving. All is shivering and wind and talk of cold. Of course between there is laughter, and some girls are still wearing skirts with no pantyhose - I am astonished. Some boys in T-Shirts sing and guitar vehemently in the street.

I buy some soba soup; as I chopstick loads of green onions, the salesmen compliments me on my chopstick skills. I tell him I'm Japanese. Later as I'm working to chopstick soup up to my mouth from the table, a used car salesman from a town nearby offers that I might find holding the soup with my free hand will serve to warm that hand.

And so does Akita get by in the winter.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
From the train station through town, towards the celebration, the streets are lined with small snow shrines. It would seem that local businesses each built one; late at night I saw one fabric store owner with a small gray afro and glasses heading out to retreive the contents of the altar for the night.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
Crowds stood in the street as the snow poured down, some lifted their chins to watch the fire overhead.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
Two women and some others stand in front of the showcase structure, admiring the fireworks.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
Some shrines were built with immense detail; this one in particular is worth observing (you can click on this picture to see a larger copy, as you can click on many of the pictures on this site). Besides the carvings and patterns, notice the purposeful voluptuous sag shape to the roof.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
Fancy some grilled squid?

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
The guy on the left called me to his foodstall with gold teeth and a country accent. He had a hearty welcoming spirit, a showman's way of speaking. He welcomed me to taste three ways of daikon radish, flowers, spicy garlic. The guy on the right spoke a few words of English and he was happy to share them with me.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
Flowers of some sort, left, spicy garlic right.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
A typical altar in a small snow shrine. Bottles of sake, candles, some script.

Yuzawa Maturi Photo
A larger snow shrine, with an icon over the top that would seem to be a family crest.

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