Festival of Kakunodate is a historic festival handed down for over 300 yeas in the Kakunodate area in Senboku City, Akita Prefecture. It is an annual festival of Myojin Shrine, the guardian god of the town and Jojuin Yakushido Temple. The festival is held for three days in September in hope of the town’s prosperity and business success.
The most spectacular is the float parade, in which 18 floats with warrior dolls and Kabuki character dolls atop of them are pulled around the city accompanied by the sounds of Japanese flute and drums played by ohayashi musicians. On the first day, the floats are pulled to Myojin Shrine. Then on the second day, they go along the street with samurai-styled old houses and head for the residence of the head of the Satake family, who were the descendants of the domain lord of this area in the Edo period, and drop in at Yakushido Temple on the third day.
The climax is the collision of the floats. When the floats run into each other in the street, the men start a negotiation to get the right of way. Then if the negotiation falls apart, they start to make the float collide each other, at which the spectators get excited and the street is surrounded with enthusiasm. This elegant but fierce festival was designated as a national Important Intangible Cultural Property in 1991.
Okuri-bon Festival is a typical summer event held on August 15 and 16 in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture. It was first held to appease the souls of the victims of the great famine during the Kyoho era (1716-1735). The people in Yanagi (Willow) Town (present-day Chuo-cho) made a houseboat, onto which they carried a willow tree, the branches of which had strips of paper with the Buddhist names of the dead victims written on them and headed for Janosaki riverside in the downstream.
Today every town in the city has the boathouse to join the festival. The boathouse is 7 m long, 2 m wide, 4 m in height and 600 to 800 kg in weight. A boat need at least 20 to 30 rowers, that is, one town team is composed of 40 to 50 rowers including standbys.
All the boats send the spirit off to the riverside in Janosaki and return to their town. The climax is when they get together under the Janosaki Bridge, where they try to be the first to return home and scramble, making their boats bump hard against each other.
Nishimonai Bon Dancing is a traditional event that has been handed down for a long time in Nishimonai in Ugo-machi, Akita Prefecture. One theory states that it started about 700 years ago, when Mitake Shrine was founded in this village and a dance to pray for rich harvest was dedicated. In 1981, Nishimonai Bon Dancing was designated as a national Important Intangible Cultural Property. It was the first designation for a Bon dancing.
One of the attractions of Nishimonai Bon Dancing is its unique and beautiful fashion. To the music of Japanese flute and drums played atop the yagura (scaffold), both minority women putting on black hood called Hikosa-zukin and adult women putting on elegant straw hat called Torioi-gasa perform elegant dances. It was considered that spirits gathered under the hood and hats. Some adult men dancers wear female dress.
There are two types of dances; “Ondo” with cheerful tempos and “Ganke” with quiet rhythms. Very complicated movements of feet and hands create elegant effects.
The ancestral “Hanui” costumes are also very beautiful. “Hanui” is passed down from mother to daughter and the patterns and designs are differ from family to family. We can see a family history in “Hanui,” which is made of fragments of old clothes collected from generation to generation since the times when dresses were important properties for women.
Shimekazari is said to come from shimenawa rope which is used in shrines to mark the boundaries of a sacred area.
In welcoming the New Year, it is hung over the front of the house to mark it as a sacred area. It is also used as a lucky charm to prevent misfortune or evil spirits from entering the house, or to bring long life and bumper crops.
Many areas in the Tohoku region still preserve customs that use, along with shide and daidai, some food to decorate for shimekazari. This may include such things as mochi (sticky rice), Konbu (kelp), pine needles and fish.
Konbu stands for joy as it sounds similar to the word, yorokobu, (to be happy). Fish is used to pray for good health for the family and, in some cases, to indicate the elevated social rank of the house’s occupants. It is also believed to summon a big catch of fish.
The food used in shimekazari indicates appreciation for a rich harvest in the past year as well as hopes for the same in the coming year.
Yakutanabata Festival (Start Festival) is held in early August in Noshiro City, a city facing the Sea of Japan in the northern part of Akita Prefecture. Yakutanabata Festival is a kind of the Nebuta lantern festival, which originates in an old episode that Abe no Hirafu (about 1,300 years ago) and Sakanoue Tamuramaro (800 years ago) used lanterns as decoys to attract attention of the enemy when they fought against the Emishi (the aboriginal inhabitants of ancient northern Japan). It is also said that the custom of lantern float was carried out to shake off drowsiness in the midsummer as well as to pray for a good harvest in coming fall and drive away the ill luck.
In Yakutanabata Festival, a castle-shaped giant lantern float are pulled around the city. Leading the parade are the Dengaku musicians, who powefully beat drums and produce peaceful tone of Japanese flute. At the end of the festival, shachi or dolphin-like ornaments attached to the top of the lantern are burned and set afloat to the Yoneshiro River.
In the evening when the ohayashi music stops and street lamps along the river are turned off, the area is dominated by silence. Then the shachi ornaments placed on rafts in the river are set on fire. In the solemn music played by the ohayashi musicians, they are floated away into the Sea of Japan.
Kawarage Jigoku located at the foot of Mt. Takamatsudake in Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture, is one of Japan’s three great spiritual places; others are Mt. Osorezan in Aomori Prefecture and Mt. Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture.
Kawarage Jigoku is the ruins of the sulfur mine, which had been flourished since the Edo period (1603-1868). It is said that the mountain was first trekked by the priest Doso in 807. Fumes of hot water gush out of the mountainside covered with grayish white lava, giving off strong smell of sulfur. The desolate scenery of naked hillside evokes us of the horrible images of Hell.
There are as many as 136 small and large Jigokus (geothermal pits) in the mountain area, 800 m above sea level. Jigokus include Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell), Tsurugi Jigoku (Sword Hell), Bakuro Jigoku (Horse Dealer’s Hell), Hariyama Jigoku (Pincushion Hell) and Nusubito Jigoku (Thief Hell).
This high-temperature hot water flows down into 20 m high Kawarage Oyutaki in the downstream. The waterfall then flows into the basin in the huge rock, where people can enjoy soaking in a natural hot spring.
Tanabata Edoro Matsuri is a festival held in Yuzawa City, Akita Pref. in August every year. A lot of decorative strips and paperwork are attached to thick bamboo poles and boxes with pretty ladies painted on them are lit up at night. The festival dates back to the middle of the Edo period (around 1700), when a princess of Takatsukasa family, a court noble in Kyoto, married into Satake Yoshiyasu, the 5th head of the Stake Nanke clan, one of the branch family of the Akita domain lord. Gripped by homesickness, the princess wrote her nostalgic feelings on strips and put them on a bamboo pole. Accordingly the townspeople who heard of the princess’s grief began to display strips and streamers on the bamboo poles and prayed that she might get over the grief. After the Meiji period (1868-1912), the present lantern boxes were began to be displayed on the streets. The boxes are also displayed in the city hall all through the year. A lot of visitors come to enjoy this fantastic summer festival held to the memory of the princess.
Horowasan Shimotsuki Kagura Dance is a Shinto ritual handed down at Haushiwake Shrine in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture. It is performed on November 7 and 8 every year to appreciate a good harvest of the year and to pray for bumper crops in the coming year. It is nationally designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
As the relevant documents were lost in fires caused by battles, the origin of this ritual is not known. From the existing oldest record written in 1590, it is presumed that it had been already performed in the Middle Ages. The feature of this kagura dance is the Yudate-kagura (the boiling water ritual), by which dancers purify themselves many times during the performance.
It is performed by the shrine priests of nearby shrines, who gather at the Kagura Hall located in the chief shrine priest’s premise. All the dancers are either shrine priests or the members of priests’ families. This kagura dance is purely a Shinto ritual, which has been solemnly handed down for a long period of time.