When the snow completely melts and the summer heat turns up, Tohoku becomes the liveliest region there is in Japan. Dubbed as the “Three Great Summer Festivals” of Tohoku, the long list of colourful and exciting events is headed by the Nebuta Festival (Aomori), Kanto Festival (Akita), and Sendai Tanabata Festival (Miyagi). Completing the list of must-see summer festivals in Tohoku are Sansa Odori (Iwate), Hanagasa Festival (Yamagata), and Waraji Festival (Fukushima).
Every festival has its own distinct charm and attraction. In this article, I will introduce some of the people behind these energetic and vibrant festivities – the soul of Tohoku summer festivals.
They dance, they shout, they cheer, they rule!
1) Haneto of the Nebuta Festival (Aomori)
First, meet the Haneto of Aomori’s Nebuta Festival. Haneto （はねと）literally means “bouncing people”. Their main role in the festival is to bounce to the beat of the drums while shouting “Rassera, rassera!” at the top of their lungs. They gather in groups and follow the Nebuta (gigantic paper lanterns) providing noise and energy to feed the merriment of the watching crowd. They can be easily distinguished from the crowd by their costumes. Haneto costume consists mainly of a white yukata tied with a cloth called “tasuki” which forms a ribbon-like knot on their back. Accessories such as bells, headdresses and fans are also worn or held as they dance.
Personally, I believe that the Haneto have the loudest, most infectious yell and are by far the most energetic among all festival people in the Tohoku region!
2) Kanto balancers of the Kanto Festival (Akita)
Kanto （かんとう）is a long bamboo pole carrying paper lanterns of varying sizes and weight. The longest kanto is 12 meters, holds 46 flame-lit paper lanterns, and weighs over 50 kilograms! Can you imagine balancing this pole on your forehead? How about your shoulders? Or your hip? Unbelievable as it may seem, this is what makes Akita’s Kanto Festival such a big and popular event across Japan.
It is no overstatement to say that the kanto balancers are super humans! They can be kids or adult men. Kids balance a smaller kanto with a length of 5-7 meters, with 24 flame-lit paper lanterns and a weight ranging from 5-15 kilograms. On the other hand, adult men balance massive kanto with a length ranging from 9-12 meters, with 46 flame-lit paper lanterns, and with a weight ranging from 30-50 kilograms. All must balance the kanto using various techniques (i.e. using one hand, shoulder, hip and forehead) to the sound of drums, flutes and the audience chanting “dokkoisho, dokkoisho”.
For me, there is no one that can beat the kanto balancers’ power of concentration, strength and skill! (Read more about the Kanto festival here.)
3) Suzume Odori dancers of the Tanabata Festival (Miyagi)
Whilst there are several Tanabata festivals in Japan, the largest and most popular is the Sendai Tanabata Festival. The main attraction for this event are the intricate and creative paper lanterns that hang on bamboo poles, decorating the streets of Sendai City. But in my opinion, what gives this festival its lively spirit is the ‘Suzume Odori’ (lit. sparrow dance) dancers!
Suzume Odori is a traditional dance that makes use of a pair of fans to mimic the movements of a sparrow. Suzume Odori dancers perform a complicated group routine and graceful individual free-style movements that will surely make you hum along and dance to their beat. They dance while yelling “Sore!” to boost the energy of the crowd. The dancers costumes mainly consist of a Japanese shirt and pants, with a Happi coat and obi (lit. belt). Of course, the fans are a must! Some women also dress in yukata to perform a unique version of the Suzume Odori.
As a Suzume Odori dancer myself, I believe that no one can beat the spectacular combination of fun and gracefulness that the dancers display at the festival! No bias. Really. lol
4) Sansa Odori performers of the Sansa Odori Festival (Iwate)
Another personal favorite, the Sansa Odori Festival is a summer festival held in Morioka, Iwate. The reason why I love Sansa is because it is a parade that is as aurally stimulating as it is visually stimulating. Imagine the sound of 10,000 Japanese drums! Goosebumps.
Sansa Odori’s parade consists of groups of performers including dancers, drummers, flutists and others. Everyone is chanting “Sakkora Choiwa Yasse!” which is a call to drive away misfortunes and welcome good luck. One of the amazing points of the parade is the drummers – both men and women – carrying a 6-7 kilogram Taiko drum each! Their role is not just limited to beating the drum but also following specific choreography where they sway, leap and dance together with the music. Sansa Odori performers are dressed in colourful yukata of various design. Some also wear colourful headdresses resembling flowers.
I believe that Sansa Odori performers have the best sense of rhythm that delivers the most moving street performance I have ever had the chance to watch.
Yamagata’s Hanagasa and Fukushima’s Waraji Festival are still yet to be checked off my list but I am so looking forward to meeting the people behind these festivals as well. I believe that for a festival to be successful, the most important thing is the people – they are the core and soul. I am so excited to watch them again in the coming years!
**This year on June 10 ~ June 11, the Tohoku ‘Kizuna’ Festival will be held in Sendai City, featuring groups of performers from all of the above festivals, including representatives from Yamagata’s Hanagasa and Fukushima’s Waraji Festival, too! What an amazing opportunity to experience Tohoku’s biggest festivals at once!! For more festival information, check out the English homepage.**
Nebuta Matsuri (Aomori)
When: August 2 ~ 7 every year
Where: Aomori City, Aomori Prefecutre (around 5 minutes from JR Aomori Station)
More info: http://www.en-aomori.com/culture-038.html
Kanto Matsuri (Akita)
When: August 3 ~ 6 every year
Where: Akita City, Akita Prefecutre (Chuo-dori street, around 15 minutes from JR Akita Station)
Tanabata Matsuri (Sendai, Miyagi)
When: August 6 ~ 8 every year
Where: Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecutre (Central Sendai and neighbouring districts, accessible on foot from JR Sendai Station **Fireworks are held at Nishi Park)
Sansa Odori Festival (Iwate Prefecture)
When: August 1 ~ 4 every year
Where: Morioka City, Iwate Prefecutre (Chuo-dori street, near the Prefectural Govt. Building, about 20 mins walk from JR Morioka Station)
Hanagasa Matsuri (Yamagata Prefecture)
When: August 5 ~ 7 this year (2017)
Where: Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture (about 10 mins walk from JR Yamagata Station, front of Bunshokan Hall)
More info: https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/spot/festival/yamagatahanagasa.html
Waraji Matsuri (Fukushima Prefecture)
When: August 4 ~ 5 this year (2017)
Where: Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture (Shinobu-dori, Route 13, about 5 mins walk from JR Fukushima Station)