I only knew about this festival because the owner of the mountain lodge Nutapukashipe told me about it when I made my reservation. She said we should try to arrive in the late afternoon, so that we could have an early dinner and visit the festival, which would take place just across the road. I didn’t really know what kind of festival it should be; however, I was very happy to apparently have chosen a good time to go to Asahidake Onsen.
The festival turned out to be an annual event, which is held every year in the middle of June to celebrate the official start of the hiking season. It’s seen as a ritual where local people and visitors pray to the god of the mountain for the safety of the climbers. ‘Perfect for us’ I thought, as we had indeed planned to go hiking the next day.
I think I can say that this festival was the neatest one I’ve ever been too. First of all, it was so different from other Japanese events, as a great part was about presenting and remembering the culture and traditions of the indigenous people in Hokkaido, called Ainu. Secondly, the atmosphere was so incredibly local and friendly, lots of people seemed to know each other and everybody was surprisingly open and chatty.
The event started around 6pm with a taiko (Japanese drum) drumming performance, getting everyone in the right mood—quite mesmerizing actually. Tasty snacks as steamed vegetables, miso-oden (boiled vegetables and tofu), raclette cheese and homemade onigiri (rice balls) were offered at a few food stalls run by staff of the surrounding hotels and the Higashikawa Tourism Association. As we had already had dinner, we were satisfied watching all the delicious looking stuff and just bought some onigiri for our hiking tour the next day.
At around 7pm we watched a torchlight procession and I spotted the first people wearing traditional Ainu clothing. They were walking towards the center of the festival location, where great amounts of wood had previously been prepared; obviously they were going to have a huge bonfire.
With the fire popping and crackling, reaching up higher and higher into the air, the locals dressed in Ainu clothes started to showcase some Ainu rituals, including dancing and singing. Have a look at the related photo story to learn more about it.
It was such a relaxed and interesting festival; we had fantastic night. Remembering other festivals in Japan, I always think ‘crowded’, and that usually puts me off to visit them. This small mountain festival in the center of Hokkaido however, is like I imagine the festivals in the old times, when places were less crowded and the atmosphere more local. Love Hokkaido!