Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kamakura snow festival in Yokote

On 15th of February, hubby and me went to see Kamakura snow festival in Yokote city. The festival is held annually on February 15 and 16. Kamakura is the name given to small igloo-like structure made entirely from compacted snow. Yokote city lies in an area of heavy snowfall where 20 to 30 centimeters of snow may fall overnight. Kamakura festival uses this snow in a festival that can only be found in such a snowy place. The Kamakura festival is held during the lunar new year together with other seasonal events such as the festival where pine and rope decorations used at the previous new year celebrations are burned in a sacred bonfire, a ceremony to pay homage to the god of water, and the ‘torioi’ ceremony to pray for an abundant harvest. In the past there have been water shortages in this region and that is why prayers are offered to the god of water, and the water god is enshrined inside the Kamakura. The Kamakura festival was also a way of spending a few simple days in a small hut away from the usual material temptations of life. These days, however, the rites chiefly involve children.
The Kamakura festival has been celebrated for more than four hundred years. Originally, Kamakuras were rectangular and had wooden roofs. Now they are constructed entirely of snow and are more dome-like. Each Kamakura is about 1.5 meters wide and 2 meters tall. They are constructed by piling snow, trampling it, packing it down, and then allowing it to freeze and harden over the course of about a week. The hardened mounds are then hollowed out to make a roomy chamber. A small entrance gives access to the wide space inside. An altar for the water deity is carved into the rear of the room inside the Kamakura. The floors are covered with grass mats and many Kamakuras are equipped with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling to provide illumination. A charcoal brazier at the center of the Kamakura is used to grill mochi (rice cakes) and heat amazake (a fermented rice drink), which are offered to the passerby. Guests are invited in with calls of ‘agattetanse’, which is a word for ‘irasshaimase’ (please come in) in Akita-dialect.
Kamakura snow hut

Water deity alter and a charcoal brazier inside the Kamakura

About 100 full-size Kamakuras are built prior to the festival days. Children participate in the making of mini-Kamakura. Townspeople along with the children decorate the riverbanks and roadsides with about 10000 mini-Kamakuras. At night candles light up the Kamakura and mini-Kamakura, which look very beautiful in the still of the night. There are four main festival locations in Yokote city. Doro koen park (omatsuri hiroba - festival plaza), the area around the Yokote city hall is the main event area. It is about eight minutes walk from JR Yokote station. Haguro-cho and Futaba-cho are the more historical Kamakura sites. The area around Yokote castle is popular for its view. The area in front of the Yokote minami elementary school has hundreds of mini-Kamakura.
To see the Kamakura festival, hubby and me started from our home at about 2 pm. On 15th of February, snow fell heavily and fierce icy winds blew in entire Akita prefecture. Hubby had to drive our car very slowly due to poor visibility and icy road conditions. Yokote snow festival area is located right on the Akita expressway and it took us about one hour and thirty minutes to reach the festival area. It was very difficult to park our car, as almost all the car parking lots near the festival area were full. Eventually, after about 30 min of hunting for a car parking area, hubby could park our car. From there, we had to walk for about fifteen minutes to reach the festival location. This time, hubby and me decided to enjoy viewing the Kamakuras during the day time (evening) itself and skipped watching the night time candle-lit Kamakura festivities. This is because I was a bit worried about the icy roads, and hubby had to again drive back home in such fierce weather conditions.
We visited the main Kamakura festival event area located in Doro koen park near the Yokote city hall. There were many big Kamakuras in this area, which looked absolutely fantastic and marvelous. There were a lot of visitors. We enjoyed viewing the Kamakuras.
Kamakuras in the main festival area

A few more Kamkauras in the festival area

Entrance of a Kamakura

Many Kamakuras

We saw several mini-Kamakuras around the main event area.
Kamakuras and mini-Kamakuras


Hubby posing in front of mini-Kamakuras

We walked around the Kamakuras, went inside a few of them, and sat in front of charcoal brazier and warmed our hands. We had a very nice time.
Me in front of a Kamakura

A lit candle inside a Kamakura

Me standing at the entrance of a Kamakura

Me standing inside a Kamakura

Me sitting inside a Kamakura

Hubby standing at the entrance of a Kamakura

Hubby sitting inside a Kamakura

Hubby sitting inside a Kamakura

In one corner of the main event area, we saw beautiful snow sculpture of a sumo wrestler. There was also a snow sculpture of the gods Ebisu and Daikokuten, which are a pair of gods out of the seven gods shichifukujin of good fortune. The Japanese shichifukujin gods have been a popular group of deities since the Edo period.
Snow sculpture of a sumo wrestler

Snow sculpture of the gods Ebisu and Daikokuten

We enjoyed viewing the Kamakuras for almost an hour. After that we went to the Yokote Fureai Center Kamakura House, which was located very near to the festival event area and was also within a walking distance from the Yokote city hall. Just inside the entrance of this building, there is a vast space where four Bondens were displayed. They looked so beautiful. Every year Bonden festival is held in Yokote city on February 16 and 17. The main attraction of this festival is the Bonden, special shrine decorations atop five-meter poles, serving as sacred wands of Shinto deities. Various private and business associations dressed in festival attire gather at the Yokote city hall in the morning of the 17th, and from there they carry the fifty or so decorated Bonden poles in a stately procession to Asahiokayama shrine. Since the procession was still two days away, we enjoyed viewing the Bondens displayed inside the Yokote Fureai Center building.
Yokote Fureai Center Kamakura House

Four Bondens displayed inside the Yokote Fureai Center building

In the Yokote Fureai Center building, there are exhibition halls and a multimedia display about the origin of Kamakura festival, the process of making Kamakura, etc. In this building, there are a few Kamakuras displayed inside a large walk-in freezer, which is kept at a temperature of -10 degree centigrade. These Kamakuras are displayed inside the glass-sided freezer all year round so that we can experience the Kamakuras even during the summer season.
Multimedia exhibition center

Hubby sitting inside a Kamakura in the walk-in freezer

Finally, we went to several food stalls that were situated around the main festival event area. The stalls served various types of typical Japanese festival food, including the famous Yokote yakisoba. We bought two bento (lunch) boxes of Yokote yakisoba and two kiritanpo (skewers of mashed rice). We ate them inside our car as there were a lot of customers and there was no space left to sit and eat the delicacies in the food stall area.
Entrance of the food stalls area

Food stalls

Yokote yakisoba and kiritanpo

Hubby eating yakisoba sitting in the car

After enjoying the Kamakura festival, we started back for our home at about 6 pm. Near the festival area we saw a beautiful red torii gate of either a temple or a shrine. The magical view of snow everywhere and a few lit candles on the ground in front of the torii gate was simply amazing.

A beautiful torii gate

Although it was an extremely cold day, we enjoyed the Kamakura snow festival very much. We returned back home by 8 pm.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Senshu park

On 11th of February, hubby and me went to Senshu park in Akita city. The park is about a ten minutes walk towards the west from Akita railway station. The park is a site of Kubota castle ruins. We took a slow leisurely walk through the historic treasures of the Kubota castle ruins. Kubota castle (Kubotajo) used to be a castle of Lord Satake and family in Akita for 270 years. Yoshinobu Satake, the first lord of Akita clan, who was transferred from the province of Hitachi to Akita in 1602, built the castle in the following year. The castle did not include the typical tower and stone wall. Honmaru (the center of the castle) was destroyed in a fire in 1880. In 1890, Akita city rented the site of the castle for the use as a public park. Later in 1984, it was donated to the city in accordance with the wishes of Yoshinaga Satake, the 15th generation of the Satake family, to be the citizen’s park both in name and reality. The park area covers 162900 square meters.
Hubby posing in front of a notice board indicating the sites of Kubota castle ruins

The Kubota domain (Kubota han) was a Japanese domain of the Edo period, which was located in Dewa province (modern-day Akita prefecture). Its main castle was in modern-day Akita city. The Kubota domain was also known as the Akita domain (Akita han). It was ruled for the whole of its history by the Satake clan. The Satake clan was originally from Hitachi province. In 1600, the Satake sided with the Western Army at the Battle of Sekigahara. After the Western Army's defeat by the Eastern forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Satake clan was allowed to continue, but was punished. The clan's income level was severely reduced, and in 1602, its territories were moved to a much smaller fief in Kubota. The Satake clan ruled for 270 years. In the Boshin war of 1868-69, it joined the Ouetsu Reppan Domei, the alliance of northern domains, but then pulled out. Kubota then came under attack by forces still loyal to the alliance. As with all other domains, it was disbanded in 1871 during Meiji enlightenment.
Although 11th February was a very cold day, it was not snowing which made it an ideal day to walk through the park in winter season. We had to climb a few steps to reach the main gate of the Kubota castle, which is located on a hill. From the top of the hill we had a very nice appealing panoramic view of the city.
View of Akita city from outside the Kubota castle main gate

View of Akita city from inside the Kubota castle main gate

The omonogashira-gobansho is the only remaining building which was built in the Kubota castle in Edo period. It was probably built during 1758 to 1778. It was used as the headquarters for guards and was situated on the left side of the main gate of the castle. It provided the first line of defense against attacks on the castle. Along with defending the castle, the guards had additional duties of preventing fire in the castle, and management of opening and closing of Nagasaka gate (another gate in the castle). Repaired by the city in 1988, we can now see it in its original condition. The building has been designated as a national important cultural asset.
Omonogashira-gobansho seen from below the hill

Close up view of omonogashira-gobansho

The Kubota castle was built in 1603. The main gate of the castle called Kubota-jo omotemon (also called ichinomon) was an important strategic location for the protection of the castle. The main gate of the castle was remodeled in 1622, and later required additional repair several times probably after incurring fire damage. The present two-storey wooden structure with tiled roof was built using historical records and archeological finds. Today it stands as a tangible architectural reminder of the Satake family of the Edo period.
View of omotemon main gate from outside the castle

Hubby and me standing in front of the omotemon main gate

View of omotemon main gate from inside the castle

Hubby posing inside the omotemon main gate

Inside the main gate of the Kubota castle is the site of the historic front yard called oshirasu. Beyond that is the site of the castle proper, although unfortunately, no trace of the castle remains now. Kubota castle was built in the eight year of the Keicho era (1603) on the hill named Shinmei-yama, which was forty meters high. The area was also called Mitsumori-yama because it has three hills. The honmaru (headquarters of the castle) was built after preparing the ground on the top of Shinmei-yama. The width of the honmaru was 117 meters east to west, and 215 meters north to south, not including earthworks surrounding the Honmaru. The lord lived with his government in the Honmaru.
Site of the castle proper

Next, we enjoyed viewing the Satake Yoshitaka dozo. It is a bronze statue of Yoshitaka Satake, the twelfth and the last feudal lord of Akita han. He was born in the year 1825 and died in 1884. He lived towards the end of the Edo period and supported the new Meiji government, which was anti-Tokugawa.
Bronze statue of Yoshitaka Satake

Hubby posing in front of the Satake Yoshitaka dozo

After that we visited the Kubotajo osumi-yagura, which is located in the northern end of the Senshu park. There used to be eight turrets in the Kubota castle during the rule of feudal lord Satake. The turret building served as both a lookout and weapon storage depot at the time of Kubota castle. All was lost, but in 1989 this one turret was reconstructed by the city as a historical symbol in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of Akita municipal system. Unfortunately, we could not enter the building as it was closed for the winter season.

Close up view of the osumi-yagura

Front view of the osumi-yagura

While returning back towards the main gate of the castle, we visited the Hachiman Akita jinja shrine which is also located inside the Senshu park. In 1867, the first feudal lord Yoshinobu Satake was enshrined in the Hachiman (also pronounced as Yahata) shrine. The ninth and twelfth feudal lords were also enshrined here. Satake clan was the follower of kami Hachiman, the shinto god of war. In 1899, a shrine called Akita jinja was shifted from Hirokoji street into the premises of the park. In 1907, these two shrines were combined together and called as Hachiman Akita jinja shrine. In 2005, the shrine was destroyed by arson fire. The present shrine is newly built and reopened on 9th December 2008. We prayed to the god from outside the shrine itself. We came to know that gohei (two zigzag paper streamers used in shinto rituals) that is attached to the top of kanto (lanterns on bamboo pole) are blessed and offered by the priest of this shrine to the kanto festival organizers every year.
Hachiman Akita jinja shrine

Close up view of the Hachiman Akita jinja shrine

Located in the backyard of the Hachiman Akita jinja shrine is the small main Hachiman shrine that was built in the third year of Tenpo era (1832). Later it was shifted to this place. It had a very precise structure and a unique architecture because it had combined designs of buddhist temples and shinto shrines. This main shrine was also burnt down in 2005, and is newly reconstructed.
The main Hachiman shrine

We also liked the torii gate of Yojiro Inari shrine that is located adjacent to the Hachiman Akita jinja shrine. Torii is a traditional Japanese gate usually found at the entrance of a shinto shrine. Yojiro Inari shrine was dedicated and made to commemorate the messenger of the first feudal lord Yoshinobu Satake. The messenger died on his trip while delivering the lord’s message in Yamagata prefecture. Several red colored torii gates look very beautiful and pleasing to the eyes.
Torii gates of the Yojiro Inari shrine

We also wanted to visit the Satake historical museum located in the southeast corner of the Senshu park. The museum houses materials related to the Satake family. The museum closes at 4.30 pm. But by the time we reached the museum it was already 4.25 pm. So, unfortunately, we could not enter the museum this time. We saw two cats playing merrily in front of the museum. Hubby enjoyed playing with the two cats for almost twenty minutes.
Entrance of the Satake historical museum

Hubby enjoyed playing with these two cats

We enjoyed viewing the Kubota castle ruins and the two shrines in the Senshu park. It was a cold and lazy afternoon outing for us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Nabemono (also called nabe) is a traditional Japanese style hearty winter specialty one-pot dish. There is nothing more delicious than a big clay pot brimming with natural ingredients such as meat, fish, chicken, and vegetables. Nabemono is typically cooked at the table in a communal nabe pot, and needs very little preparation. It is a staple food in winter and is a key aspect of Japanese daily life that brings the family together to share a warm healthy meal. These dishes are known to originate from rural areas sometime around the 9th century. It was a farmhouse fare where a large pot was kept warm over the irori (hearth).
There are two types of nabemono. One type is lightly flavored mostly with konbu (kelp) and eaten with a dipping (tare) to enjoy the taste of the ingredients themselves. Examples of this type of nabemono are yudofu and mizutaki. The other type is deeply flavored typically with miso, soy sauce, dashi, and/or sweet soy, and eaten without further flavoring. Yosenabe, chankonabe, oden, and sukiyaki fall under this category.
At home, nabemono is traditionally cooked in a ceramic clay pot on a portable gas element that is placed on the dining table or kotatsu. A ‘cassette konro’ is a little portable one-burner gas stove which runs on cylinders of butane gas.
Cassette konro

Butane gas cylinder

Butane gas cylinder in cassette konro

The pots called donabe are traditionally made out of special clay for use over an open flame. The nabe pots are usually placed in the center of dining table/kotatsu and the nabemono is shared by many people.


Next, we have to get the ingredients ready. Any kind of seasonal vegetables, fish, and meat can be used. This time I used konbu, hakusai (Chinese cabbage), naga negi (Japanese leek), tara (cod) fish, thinly sliced pork, shiitake mushroom, buna shimeji mushroom (brown beech), tofu, mochi-iri-kinchaku (rice cake wrapped in tofu pouch), fish tsumire (fish ball), and chicken tsumire (chicken ball).

Ingredients of nabemono

My hubby and me, we both prefer nabemono that is lightly flavored with konbu seaweed. I generally put a piece of konbu in the pot and fill it up halfway with water. After lighting the burner, I put the nabe pot on it and bring it to a boil. When the pot comes to a boil, I lower the heat a bit and start putting the ingredients in. The order in which we add ingredients to the konbu stock matters, though there are no hard and fast rules. Ingredients that take longer to cook should go in first. These include mushrooms, meat, fish, hakusai, tsumire, naga negi etc. Delicate ingredients like tofu (and chrysanthemum leaves, though I did not use this time) should go into the nabe pot the last. Then, I let the nabe simmer until done. If necessary, I use a wooden scoop to remove any froth from the pot.

Simmering nabemono

Nabemono are usually eaten with a sauce sometimes called tare, which literally means ‘dipping’. There are several kinds of sauces. The most common ones are the ponzu and gomadare (sesame sauce). Ponzu is made of soy sauce and juice pressed from a bitter orange, sweet sake, and konbu stock. Gomadare is usually made from ground sesame, soy sauce, konbu stock, sake, and sugar.
Dipping sauces

Now we were all set to have a delicious dinner of nabemono. This time, we used ponzu as the dipping sauce. We used shichimi togarashi, a seven spiced chilli pepper blend, to flavor the ponzu.
Nabemono - our dinner

Nabemono is perfect with hot sake or an ice cold Kirin beer. Since the can of beer was not noticeable in the previous photo, hubby tilted the beer can horizontally so that we all could see his brand of beer :).
Kirin beer with nabemono

We relished our dinner.

Hubby posing with a bowl of rice and simmering nabemono

Hubby enjoying the nabemono

Once we finished eating nearly all of the ingredients, we cooked rice in the remaining leftover flavorful broth. Believe me the taste was simply divine.
Everything that goes into a nabemono is healthy. It can be as fat free as we want. We usually drink the soup (broth) too, so that no nutrition is lost. Nabemono warms us from inside, so we do not need to warm up the house for several hours!