Last week, I took some vacation time and headed out to Shiramine 白峰 in Ishikawa for the Snow Sculpture Festival 雪だるま祭り.
Shiramine is one of the villages that was incorporated into the city of Hakusan-shi 白山市, and every February, they hold a small, local snow festival on a Friday night.
The route from Kanazawa, Ishikawa’s capital, to Shiramine, a tiny village tucked away in the Chuo Alps and buried in several feet of snow, served to remind me how varied the topography of Japan can be within just one prefecture. Ishikawa, for example, is a long prefecture stretching from the Chuo Alps of Hokuriku to the sea and contains the three regions–the sleepy seaside Noto, the northernmost rural region; the bright lights and bustle of Kanazawa, the cultural capital of Hokuriku; and the central to southern region of Kaga, home to the sacred mountain of Hakusan. Ishikawa is part of “hidden Japan,” and despite having Kanazawa as a cultural hub, remains a mystery to most foreign tourists.
I’m often told that living in rural Japan and being able to attend these festivals is experiencing “the real Japan.” Shiramine and Tokyo are both the “real Japan.” What I’m experiencing is, rather, the Japan tourists don’t come to see. Don’t get me wrong, there are many days I long for city life–I often wish I could just pop on the train to the theatre after work or find real peanut butter in a store closer than an hour away. But these unexplained corners of Japan are worth seeking out.
There is also a sense of the vanishing out here. On the bus ride there, I was told that every year there are fewer and fewer snow sculptures. Each resident of the city must create one sculpture. Sadly, Shiramine, like most villages and towns in the 田舎, is a victim of the 少子高齢化–low birthrates and aging population. This year, between Shiramine and a neighboring town, there are about 1000 residents, the average age of which is about 53.
This discourse of the vanishing (see Marilyn Ivy) is a popular subject of debate. I live in an area where many traditions and festivals are designated as intangible cultural artifacts in an effort to assure their continuance. In Japan in general, some of the arts and culture that have waned in contemporary times are experiencing a revival (casual kimono wearing, lacquer-ware production), and many others remain an important part of the culture, albeit “fancy” and not everyday culture (tea ceremony, calligraphy). Still, there are many things that are not dying out, per se, but becoming cultural relicts. For example, when Liza Dalby wrote Geisha, her dissertation on the ethnography of geisha of Kyoto and Akakusa in the 1970s, the culture of geisha was already waning and being replaced with hostess bars and “snacks.”* And this, of course, scares people because geisha have become an important, although essentialized, symbol of Japanese culture.
Yet, there are still geisha after all this time. What this all means for the snowmen of Shiramine, I’m not sure. After all, the potential to lose something of value is a powerful motivator. There are local-government-sponsored programs in place to encourage the traditional arts; for example, the invitation and support of young artists to work on the lacquer-ware traditional to Ishikawa. On the other hand, the depopulation of the rural areas that goes along with the migration of young people to the cities is more the problem than the birth dearth. As someone who left my hometown hoping to get to a big city (with varying levels of success over the several major moves I’ve made since the first one), I understand the feelings of the young people leaving the countryside. I don’t know what the future will hold for Shiramine, but, like the snow, the sakura, and the 紅葉, I’m determined to enjoy it while it lasts.
*I sometimes wonder if my town has more snacks than citizens to patronize them, but that’s another story.