Festival fervour and warm hospitality in the frozen north: a winter journey in Akita
For a small island nation one-twentieth the size of Australia, it never ceases to amaze me that I still manage to find so many interesting destinations in regional areas of Japan that I hadn’t previously discovered in my three decades of travelling there. More astounding, perhaps, is that regional cultures are so varied depending on where you are in Japan—a result of isolation due to the mountainous terrain in the olden days.
I find it a pity that much of regional Japan remains poorly known to international visitors. Those handful of regional destinations that have become well known to the outside world in recent times, e.g. Kiso Valley, Takayama and Shirakawa, on the other hand, now suffer periods of overcrowding as in the mainstream tourist areas—ironic considering there are so many other regional destinations where you can enjoy your travels without ever seeing other international tourists.
The name ‘Akita’ may conjure up an image of a dog breed to many, however, the area where the breed originates is one of the hidden gems of Japanese tourism. Located near the northwestern extremity of Honshū, Japan’s main island, Akita Prefecture is primarily a rural region where many old traditions have survived through Japan’s rapid modernisation last century. Facing the Sea of Japan on the opposite side to the southeastern Siberian coast, the long and snowy winters of Akita, as well as distance from Tōkyō, Ōsaka and other major Japanese cities, have helped the area to preserve a piece of ‘old Japan’ that has disappeared from many other parts of the nation.
Akita is slowly becoming known to the outside world. The historical town of Kakunodate, with its black-walled samurai residences and spectacular cherry blossoms, has become a popular with tourists in recent years. However, most of Akita still remains well and truly an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ destination. It is an area where you can travel for a week (or even a month) without encountering other international tourists. A general lack of well-defined tourist attractions perhaps explains why such a beautiful area hasn’t become more widely known—but this is exactly what makes Akita so great as a travel destination. It is an area where you can REALLY experience life in regional Japan—spending time wandering the towns, villages and countryside, observing everyday life of the Japanese from a bygone era—instead of ticking items off your travel ‘bucket list’. Akita’s people are renowned for their hospitality and positive personality, making you feel genuinely welcome and at home, even if you don’t speak Japanese.
Akita is interesting and beautiful all year round. However, I personally have a soft spot for Akita’s winters, when the landscape turns monochromatic under the leaden skies, and blizzards can go on for days on end. Tourist areas such as Kakunodate can be enjoyed without the crowds of the warmer months. Winter is also a time when many festivals are held in Akita, in common with other areas of the Tōhoku region (northern part of Honshū island). The origin of many winter festivals can be traced back to the prehistoric custom of offering prayers toward the end of winter (generally February) for bountiful harvests and good health during the year to come. The Kamakura festival of Yokote, with its dreamy atmosphere of candle-lit snow igloos, and the Hiburi-Kamakura festival of Kakunodate, where participants perform a hair-raising ritual of whirling a burning bale of rice straw on a rope around their bodies, are some of the better-known winter festivals of Akita that draw a large crowd.
There is a distinct difference in culture between the inland and coastal areas of Akita, reflecting the contrasting environment and climate. Inland areas receive heavy snowfalls that nourish the fields and forests with abundant snowmelt during the warmer months. The food culture of inland Akita, therefore, richly features rice—including the iconic ‘kiritanpo’ roasted rice cakes—and ‘sansai’, i.e. ‘wild vegetables’ foraged from the forests. Rice production also underpins Akita’s position as one of Japan’s premier sake-brewing regions. On the other hand, coastal Akita, with its wind-swept sand dunes and rocky shores, has a culinary tradition based on a wide variety of seafood. The umami-packed ‘shottsuru’ or fish sauce made from fermented sandfish, is a classic ingredient in coastal Akita cuisine.
In February 2018, I spent some time on Oga Peninsula on the Akita coast. The area is well known to the Japanese for its ‘Namahage’ tradition, in which men wearing red and blue demon face-masks and wielding cleavers (fake ones these days for safety!) visit households, asking the children in a booming voice whether they have been naughty or lazy during the year. The custom has origins in the ancient folk religion of the area—the demon-like Namahage are actually embodiments of guardian gods that bring bountiful harvests, good health and household harmony.
A large winter festival based on the Namahage tradition—a UNESCO Cultural Heritage since 2018—is now held every February, which draws a significant crowd. The event, held at a country Shintō shrine surrounded by forests, is arguably one of the most exciting winter festivals in Japan. The throngs gather around a large bonfire that send showers of sparks into the snowy night sky, as the festival starts with an eclectic mix of Shintō ceremonies, dances and a taiko-drum performance. The festival climaxes as the Namahage decend from the forests uphill, carrying flaming torches. Tension builds as the men clad in masks menacingly amble through the crowds roaring in the local dialect “Nagu go wa inegā, warui go wa inegā?” (“Where are the crying kids? Where are the naughty kids?”). Young children burst into tears at the frightening sights and sounds, as parents have a good belly-laugh, and the Shintō priest tries to appease the angry demons with an offering of baked mochi (sticky rice cakes). All is in good humour, though, as the festival draws to a close and the Namahage mingle (socially) with the crowds for photos.
I spent the following day roaming the countryside and the coast of Oga Peninsula. The crowds and feverish excitement of the previous night seemed like another world, as I walked the deserted country roads without seeing a single person. Snowflakes flew horizontally and powerlines overhead howled as I was buffeted by biting winds blowing straight out of Siberia. Under the leaden skies and the white blanket, the entire landscape seemed to be patiently waiting for spring—it is often said that the legendary patience of Akita’s people stems from their long and snowy winters. Tiny temples and ancient stone monuments dedicated to gods and departed ancestors dotted the countryside—a reflection of the role spirituality has played in overcoming life’s hardships for the local inhabitants.
After a long walk and with my fingertips tingling from the cold, I reached a tiny village on the coast. Small fishing boats lined the beach for protection from rough seas whipped up by the Siberian winds—quietly waiting, like everything else here, for the warmer months. With snow flurries becoming more persistent and the time approaching midday, I entered a tiny local eatery for lunch. In fact, I had earmarked this particular place for lunch, as it had great reviews according to local blogs (like many small restaurants in Japan, it is practically ‘web-invisible’ otherwise). The couple running the establishment seemed a little shocked to see a non-local, in a coat covered with snowflakes, suddenly appear before them. But not for long, as the lady rushed to take my coat off me for drying, and brought a heater over to my seat to thaw me out (I must have looked REALLY cold)… the best of Akita hospitality! As for the food, the blogs were right—the freshest seafood straight out of the cold northern waters, served in the local way—so simple yet so effective. Satiated and with sensation restored to my fingertips, I bade the lovely folks farewell and set off up the lonely country road again.
Click here for classic Oga Peninsula winter recipes, the ‘anpura-mochi’ (potato cake) and the ‘anpura-jiru’ (potato cake stew)—look for them under the ‘Flourless and low-flour’ section.
As I looked across the white landscape, it dawned on me how sparsely populated Akita is—as a result of aging of the population. Akita has the unfortunate renown of having both the highest rates of aging AND population decline in the whole of Japan. Affixed to an old wooden shed next to the road, I noticed a hand-written signboard: the message read “Please discuss, please ask, please do not suffer alone”. I then remembered that Akita also has the highest suicide rate in Japan. Despite their resilience to adversities over the centuries, the people of Akita are starting to succumb to a ‘perfect storm’ of aging, shortage of support services, economic hardships, decline of local industries and agriculture, and life in a harsh environment. Alongside other areas of the Tōhoku region, Akita was a major contributor of workforce after World War II to major cities and industrial centres such as Tōkyō—supporting Japan’s miraculous economic development during the 20th century, while draining the countryside of its economic and population base. It reminded me so much of what many areas in regional Australia are suffering, and how so many regional areas around the world seem to face the same challenges. I guess this is the very reason why I established Deeply Regional Japan—to raise awareness of the issues and to support regional areas, in whatever modest ways I can.
So, when we are able to travel again freely, please visit regional areas—be it in Australia, Japan or elsewhere—where the economic benefits of tourism are most needed. Akita is one such region offering so many special travel experiences that you simply cannot get by visiting the mainstream tourist destinations. To find out more about Akita’s diverse attractions, a good starting point is https://www.japan.travel/en/destinations/tohoku/akita/ . We would also be pleased to provide you with advice on travel in this fascinating region. Please contact us via the enquiry form at the bottom of our webpages. For further information on our tours to Akita and other areas of the northern Tōhoku region, please https://www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/tours-regions-northern-tohoku. [Please note that all our tours are currently suspended due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.]