Japan is a country famous for its imaginative seasonal and local festivals and the Inukko Matsuri, in Japan’s icy north, is just one of the reasons for that reputation.
Every year, on the second weekend of February, the centre of Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture – on the west coast of the northern Tohoku region – comes alive as local people erect an array of snow sculptures, most of them depicting shrines… and dogs.
Whether you are an animal lover or not, walking around the town you’ll find quite a sight, particularly during the evening, when the statues are illuminated and fireworks blast off in the background.
The customs behind the festival – and the reasons for those dogs – date back to the early Edo Period (around 380 years ago), when locals decorated the entrances to their houses and shops with statuettes of man’s best friend (and cranes and tortoises) made from rice flour, or mochi, as charms to ensure local bandits, who had attacked homes in broad daylight but who the area’s feudal lord had killed or banished, did not return.
The modern-day tradition is to build snow statues in front of snow shrines outside Yuzawa station, where people pray for protection from wrongdoing as well as for a successful harvest.
The Akita dog is said to be strong, independent, aloof with strangers but very affectionate and loyal to family members. One of the most famous examples is Hachiko, who continued to wait for his master’s arrival at the station everyday for nine years after he had died; you’ll know his tale if you have ever met someone at Shibuya station back here in Tokyo.
The festival is not just a celebration of the Akita dog, however. In front of the main shrine, known as Inukko Jinja, a Shinto Priest blesses a number of canines that represent dog breeds from other prefectures. It is one of a number of rituals that takes place at the event and always attracts a large crowd.
On top of that there are traditional carnival games, a taiko drum performance and the firework display in the evening, which is definitely worth staying around for. The illuminated snow shrines at that time give the park an almost magical feel.
You can spend a weekend visiting the site while also hitting the slopes in other parts of Akita, a prefecture famed for excellent snow conditions and ski resorts with stunning surroundings near Lake Tazawa.
With some fantastic hotels, therapeutic hot springs – those at Akinomiya and Oyasu are particularly well-loved – amazing scenery and fun festivals, Akita makes for an excellent weekend, or slightly longer, getaway from Tokyo.
Even in winter, though, the prefecture is not all about snow. In fact, the area is protected on three sides by mountains, which means some crops that are impossible to grow elsewhere in Tohoku due to the cold pacific winds (known as the yamase) can thrive.
Local cuisine will intrigue as well as make your mouth water: one tradition is to drop a smoldering rock from the fire into a cold broth of seafood to create a sizzling dish, brimming with flavour. Local records – the Inaniwa Kohin Jiseki-shi – show that udon noodles have been on the menu since before 1661 and people from Akita are very proud of Inaniwa Udon, which has gained great popularity all over Japan.
If you needed any more persuading, the most beautiful girls in Japan are said to come from the area, though by whom and how that is decided is anyone’s guess…
Text by Matthew Hernon
Details and getting there: Inukko Matsuri 2013 is on February 9th and 10th (Sat-Sun). The festival is in the area just outside the station.