Kamakura snow houses in Yokote, Akita Prefecture (Masaru Komiyaji)Candles burn in small, 30-centimeter kamakura on a riverbank in Yokote, Akita Prefecture. (Masaru Komiyaji)
YOKOTE, Akita Prefecture--While snow houses can be seen in many northern municipalities, this city's 400-year-old tradition of worshipping the god of water in snow houses has taken the custom to another level.
One hundred full-sized snow houses, called "kamakura," transformed Yokote during its annual snow festival on Feb. 15 and 16.
The festival probably boasts the largest number of kamakura in Japan large enough to accommodate several people.
During the festival, local children sit on straw mats in the kamakura, calling "Agatte tanse" (Please come in) and "Ogande tanse" (Please pray to the god of water) to tourists.
The snow houses have a plaque devoted to the god of water and a collection box for monetary offerings. Visitors are entertained with rice cakes grilled on small portable stoves and "amazake," a sweet low-alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.
The tradition is thought to have its roots in the Sagicho fire festival, which began in the lifetime of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, a warrior in the Heian Period (794-1185). New Year's decorations would be burned at the festival, and it is believed that furnaces made of snow were built to contain the flames.
Yokote, located in an inland basin that experiences heavy snowfall in winter and little rain in summer, has also had ancient customs of worshipping the god of water in winter and praying for rainfall in midsummer.
It is believed that the two traditions combined about 400 years ago into the kamakura custom.
It was customary for every home in Yokote to make its own kamakura from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to the early Showa Era (1926-1989). After World War II, fear of accidents and the need to avoid obstructing traffic made the custom a more regulated affair.
Today, the full-sized kamakura for the snow festival are the work of experts.
The city held its first snow festival in 1954, introducing a "model house" with a 5-meter diameter. The size and shape of snow houses had varied substantially until then. The standard size was later reduced to a diameter of 4 meters and a height of 3 meters.