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Nakaya Snow Festival

The Nakaya Snow Festival (中谷雪まつり) is a small community festival held each winter on the grounds of the Yamatsubaki Tourism and Community Center located in the heart of Otari village, with this year's iteration taking place on Saturday, February 2nd. Though the main festivities were conducted just before and after the sun set, area residents began gathering together from an early hour, and worked throughout the cold, clear day to prepare for the evening event, which included handouts of various foods and several activities including karaoke, before coming to a spectacular climax with a large ceremonial bonfire.

Japanese Snow Festival Bonfire, Otari, Nagano
Craig, Jesse & Renee wielding torches just before the choreographed lighting of the ceremonial "dondo yaki" bonfire.

I only just recently moved to Otari in June, so I was very excited to have my first chance to attend the Nakaya Snow Festival, especially since the settlement of "Nakaya" is the very location where I have made my home. Making it even more special was the fact that three of my American friends, whom I met while snowboarding in Hokkaido more than 5 years ago, were staying in nearby Hakuba Village and were able to join me.

I picked them up from the main train station in Otari, Minami-Otari Station, and took them up to a small settlement up in the mountains, where only a handful of houses and residents remain, to show them the spectacular views out over the village, and of the towering alpine peaks of Japan's Northern Alps. We also got to meet with a friendly, gregarious coworker of mine, who lives in the area, and were graciously invited into his 100+ year old house to sit and chat for a while, before saying our goodbyes and making our way back down the mountain and into the nearby valley known as Nakaya.

The four of us arrived to the festival together sometime after 5:00 p.m. We were instantly greeted with warm smiles and quickly handed plates and chopsticks, then gently nudged in the direction of a kei truck loaded with locally-made pickled vegetables (some of which took two years to make), Japanese-style curry and rice, and an assortment of sake and other non-alcoholic drinks that were all free for the taking. We loaded our plates, but were careful to save just enough room for some wild boar meat at the adjacent table, from a boar that had just been hunted and slaughtered by a local hunter in Nakaya a few short days before.

While enjoying this delicious, unexpected meal, we were serenaded by the sounds of karaoke emanating from the gymnasium, and would later find out that those who sang a song received a head of Otari-grown "sechu cabbage" as a participation prize, an unusually sweet variety of cabbage that owes its unique flavor to the fact that it is planted in the fall and matures under the snow, before eventually being harvested out from under 5 or 6 feet of snow in late January or early February. We were urged to take the karaoke stage by numerous people, and I would have loved to, but I was busy translating for them, as so many friendly locals were eager to meet and talk to the visiting Americans.

The main event, starting just after 6:00 p.m., once the sun had fully set, was the large "dondo yaki" bonfire. Calling it a bonfire is much too simplistic, as it is a traditional burning of straw and pine decorations that were displayed in the homes of area residents over the New Year period, that is meant to send the local families' prayers and wishes for health and happiness in the New Year up to the heavens together with the skyward wafting smoke. For us, it was a fascinating scene because in the U.S., while we too have bonfires, they are mainly carried out for simple camaraderie or utilitarian reasons, and don't carry the traditional, cultural or ceremonial meaning that this one did. Additionally, my friends received a wonderful invitation to hold torches and help in the lighting of the bonfire, which for a small group of travelers was a rare and precious opportunity to go beyond normal sightseeing, and to not only experience, but also to participate in a unique showcase of Japanese culture and tradition. Needless to say, they quickly accepted and happily live-streamed most of the action on various social media platforms. 

Following the lighting of the massive bonfire, a number of people took up positions on the top of a snowbank, just above the area where everyone was gathered near the fire. Without much warning, the crowd quickly turned their backs on the bonfire, and started pulling out plastic bags that had been buried deep in their pockets, while those standing on the snowbank started opening boxes full of oranges, small pouches with coins, candies, chocolates, nuts and even cup ramen. The anticipation was building, and before long, all of the treats were flying into the sea of festival goers, with children and adults alike scrambling to gather as many items as possible, as again, the items you collect are believed to bring you luck. I was given the best advice possible just before the start, "No Mercy for Children", and it quickly became my mantra for the duration of the treat toss allowing me to walk home with a healthy stash of goodies.

After the chaos of flying food had died down, lastly we were handed tree branches with colorful bits of mochi dangling from the ends that we were told to cook over the fire and eat, similar to the way in which marshmallows are roasted over campfires in the U.S. Only, as before, this carried more meaning here, as it is a traditionally held belief in Japan that eating the mochi cooked in this manner will ensure the health of those who eat it for the upcoming year. We did our best to withstand the blazing heat of the burning flames and did as we were told.

Even for myself, having lived in Japan for almost 15 years, this was the first time I have had such an experience, and I found myself feeling like a tourist again for the first time in a long time, and a part of me began falling in love with Japan and its traditions all over again, and I was reminded of how grateful I am for the amazing experiences that present themselves and all the wonderful people here in the village of Otari that I get to share them with.


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