Festivals have deep-rooted cultures in various regions throughout Japan. Festivals are rituals to offer prayers to the 8 million gods of Japan’s Shintoism, but how these festivals are manifested depends on each festival.
Konoura, a town in Nikaho in the southwest portion of Akita Prefecture, annually celebrates the Kakeyo Festival on Feb. 4, the day of the spring, known as an unusual festival. Wishing safety and a large catch for fishermen, people march in the street carrying huge, locally caught cods on their shoulders.
Festival of fishermen who catch cod in the Sea of Japan at the height of winter
Nikaho is at the southernmost end of the Sea of Japan side of Akita Prefecture. With the Sea of Japan to the west and Mount Chokai to the south, the town is blessed with rich natural beauty. Konoura, close to the sea, is a fishing village that has prospered ever since Konoura Port opened in 1232, is known for the Kakeyo Festival, which has over 300 years of history. It is also called the Cod Festival, for its protagonist is cod, caught locally in the winter.
Cod is one of the best-known foods of the winter and the peak catch season is January to the end of February. Konoura is a Mecca for cod fishing; the cod here are called Konoura Cod, a well-known local produce. Cod fishing at the height of winter in the bitterly cold Sea of Japan is extremely challenging. Talking of the origin of Kakeyo Festival, Tadaetsu Sato, who is a student of the local history of Konoura, says “In olden days fishermen could not catch any fish, or were killed in the rough sea. So the fishermen started to offer the precious cod they caught to the local Konourayama Shrine to express gratitude, and pray for safety at sea and a bountiful catch.”
Marching in town with over 10 kilograms of cod on their shoulders
When we arrived at Konoura Port at 9:30 a.m., many people were already there. In the middle of the hall, there was an array of magnificent cod. People take a look at the cod labelled with the names of those people chosen to make offerings, saying “That one over there is this year’s largest.”
The festival started with traditional Kinpo Kagura music, said to have come to this area about 400 years ago. With children clad in colorful costumes in light blue and white at the center, the performers played flutes and drums and performed a dance of offering. They played the drums—dramatically twirling the drumsticks—and the children looked proud to be entrusted with this important mission.
At exactly 10:00 a.m., people started marching and hoisting the cod on their shoulders. With the performers of Kinpo Kagura leading the procession, pairs of people designated to make offerings carried cod hanging from bamboo rods, formed a line and slowly walked the distance of two kilometers from Konoura Port to the Konourayama Shrine.
The look of people with cod marching in town is new to us, but for the town’s residents it is a familiar, annual sight. They stood and watched the procession peacefully.
When we arrived at Konourayama Shrine, a multitude of people were waiting. Onlookers stood on both sides of the long stone stairs to the main shrine, and those making offerings with cod walked up the stairs between them. There were about 50 cod offered this year, the largest being about 15 kilograms. The person who carried it chuckled. “It was a bit heavy.”
After all the cod were offered to the shrine, Kinpo Kagura music resumed being played in front of the shrine, and the priest gave a prayer. The onlookers offered coins and quietly put their hands together in prayer. They all seemed to be deeply praying for safety at sea and a bountiful catch.
Chunky cod soup made by local moms keep people warm
After the ritual, we walked to Seishi Park Square across the road. This was an event space with many colorful fishermen’s flags. There were also booths serving various delicious foods from local areas, as well as a stage with Kinpo Kagura performers, which attracted a crowd of people.
The most popular was cod soup, cooked by local moms. The soup had large chunks of cod and was flavored with cod livers. It was delicious and totally immersed our chilly body.
At the end of the event, there was also a big prize draw where people could win the donated cod. Chojin Neiger, a local hero character, also went on stage. The person who won, held a large cod and excitedly exclaimed “It’s cod stew tonight!” “It used to be a small local festival but every year it gets more famous with the growing number of visitors,” says Sato.
Small town festivals are an excellent way to experience the local culture of a place, like its history and food culture.
Writer : ASAKO INOUE / Photographer : CHIE MARUYAMA
Nikaho City Tourism Information
Akita Prefecture Tourism Information
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