Semboku-city is located in the eastern part of central Akita Prefecture. The city is blessed with rich nature, and the woodland accounts for about 80% of the city (892.05km2). In the winter, the average temperature falls below freezing point because the area is at the foot of the Ou mountain range. Unique events, which were born as a result of people’s efforts to face the large amount of the snow and severe cold, have the power to blow away even the cold winter.
Paper balloon festival – Balloons fly with people’s wishes –
Accompanied with loud cheers, huge paper balloons fly in the snowy night sky along with fireworks. These cylindrical paper balloons are 3 to 8 meters (sometimes 12 meters) in length and are made up of huge paper that is generally for business use, bamboo frame, and “Tanpo,” a cloth ball soaked in oil. Hand-drawn warriors and women in kimonos are depicted on the paper, which emerge fantastically on dark night skies when the “Tanpo” catches on fire. Balloons fly with people’s wishes, in the past these wishes focused mainly on a rich harvest and good health, and recently they have expanded, for example, “well-being of family,” “good business,” and “traffic safety.”
Kamihinokinai district, where paper balloon festival is held, is also located in the eastern part of the center of Akita. This mountainous area has been famous for rice planting and mountain work. It is said that in Edo era, (17C to 19C) Gennai Hiraga, a famous scientist at that time, visited this area and taught a play which used the principles of a hot air balloon. That story is now thought to be the origin of the Paper balloon festival.
People living in eight communities of Kamihinokinai area begin preparing for the festival 2 months in advance before the festival day. All preparation work, such as paper cutting, picture selection, and the drawing of the pictures, are done by the young and old together. The festival was interrupted by the war time and was suspended for a while, but it was revived in 1974 due to the enthusiastic efforts of the local people. Since then, the paper balloon festival has become a representative part of the Akita winter. Hiburi Kamakura – Swing the fire sacks for family’s health and safety –
Vigorously burning fire rings dance in the snow. This fire festival has been handed down in Kakunodate area in Akita as the New Year’s event to wish family’s health and safety on the fire. The fire is set to sacks made by rice straw, and local men swing it around their bodies by holding a straw rope that sticks to each small rice bag. From the olden times, the fire has been thought to be sacred and able to purify rice fields, people’s bodies, and the ground.
Tourists also join in and swing around sacks with local men. The experience of having a flame swirling just 3m away from the body is quite impressive. In about one minute, the sack is burnt out completely, and only the rope remains in a hand. This rope can be taken back home as a souvenir.
Just next to the fire dance, a tall flame tower called “Tenpitsu” was erected. The tower is about 5 m in height and is made of straw. New Year’s decoration goods and old charms are burnt out with this tower to convey people’s wishes to the heaven. The fire is also used for the previous mentioned fire dance.
At the very end of the festival, fireworks are set off which signalizes the event’s closure. Hiburi Kamakura is now a city-designated intangible folk cultural asset which is beautiful to see and fun to join. Kandekko – Removing the ropes for good harvest –
This Shinto ritual is known as a unique New Year festival. Sacred ropes, called “Shimenawa,” which are about 1 meter in length, are thrown one after another to hang them on the huge Katsura tree, a sacred tree in Nakazato, a mountainous area of Senboku-city, Akita. A miniature hoe made of walnut tree that is approx. 50 centimeters and a male’s genital organs’ carved from magnolia, about 20 centimeters, are tied at each end of ropes. This mini-sized hoe and ropes with two types of wood are called “Kandekko.” People’s wishes for good harvest are put on each wooden craft; reproductive organs means sowing and a hoe expresses cultivation. Other wishes, such as hopes of marriage and the well-being of family are also put on the “Kandekko”
Traditionally, wishes are said to come true if the thrown ropes successfully hang from the Katsura tree. It has also been believed that removing the ropes from the tree and re-hanging the fruit trees after going back home, results in good harvest and individuals begets a child, and also the rope will take care off disaster and evil.
Since there is no divine favor in Kandekko if it doesn’t hang from the branches of Katsura tree, it is thrown until it reaches the tree. The ropes sometimes fly away toward unexpected directions. Loud cheers are raised up from the crowd when the Kandekko is successfully hung from the branches.
The old Katsura tree is estimated to be about 470 years-old whose circumference is about 5m with a height around 16m tall. There is a legend about this sacred tree; in the old days, people in the Nakazato district had suffered from repeated deluge. However, ever since this Katsura tree floated down by a large flood and took root in this district, the frequency of the deluge surprisingly decreased. To enshrine this Katsura tree as a God which prevents evil spirits bringing plague and disaster from entering the village, people made a small shrine just beside the Katsura tree. After that, in addition to flood prevention, good harvest throughout the years, marriage, and child’s birth have also been prayed upon, and now the Kandekko event is also carried out on the Lunar New Year’s day.
Until around 30 years ago, the Kandekko event had been held in each house. However, it became difficult to hold it individually because of the declining birthrate. People of Nakazato area were afraid of a disappearance of the tradition and formed a “Nakazato Kandekko Preservation Society” to organize the event by the whole village.
In 1986, Kandekko became registered as a country selected intangible folk cultural assets and also in 1991, it was recognized as Akita Prefecture designated intangible folk cultural assets. In addition, the sacred Katsura tree has been carefully preserved as a Senboku-City designated natural monument. Naked pilgrimage – Praying for non-fire accidents –
In the extreme cold, almost naked young men run through the village to pray for non-fire accidents for a year to a shrine located at the summit of the mountain.
In the spring of 1877, 14 houses in Matsuba and Ainai villages were burnt out by a large fire. Matsuba village had another fire previously in the same year. To prevent the repeated tragedy, people of both villages planned to make a pilgrimage to the Konpira Shrine in Shikoku, the eastern part of Japan, because the God of Konpira Shrine is famous for prevention of mishap. Villagers prayed for prevention of fires and returned to the villages with amulets in the shape of Konpira Shrine. To enshrine the amulets, they built a small shrine as the village’s Konpira Shrine at the top of Asahi-Mountain, which is at the center of both communities. From the erection of the shrine, naked men visit and pray for fire prevention every February.
Chosen local young men from both Matsuba and Ainai villages purify their bodies by bathing in the Hinokinai-River, even in negative degrees Celsius temperature. Those who experienced the lose of a family member within a year or whose wife is pregnant or just gave birth, are not chosen as participants of the pilgrimage.
Young people wear a woven straw loincloth called “Kendai” on their waist, traditional socks called “Tabi,” and “Waraji,” straw sandals. In the heavy snow, they run through the villages to go to the shrine on Asahi-Mountain. On the way to Konpira shrine, they receive candles and twisted ears of rice and run up the mountain without any rests. At the top of the mountain, they pray for the prevention of the fire and take off their “Waraji” and “Kendai” to tie them to the sacred trees in the shrine precinct. They serve “Omiki,” a sacred sake, then descend the mountain.
When the young people go back to the villages, their bodies turn red due to the snow and cold. Chosen house’s owners welcome them, and men report that the pilgrimage was successfully over to that house’s god called “Uchigami-sama” by offering a light.
In the evening, a feast called “Naorai,” where everyone in the villages gathers, begins. During the feast, newly-wedded couples are introduced, and the festivities lively continue throughout the night. The naked pilgrimage of Matsuba and Ainai area tells and reminds us of the rusticity of rural life and local regional faith.