Sendai’s Aoba Matsuri

The Aoba Matsuri has been a magnificent event on Sendai’s calendar since the era of Date Masamune, the samurai lord who ruled over the city some 350 years ago. Even today, you can still feel the legacy of Date Masamune in the traditions of the festival. The festival was originally held to celebrate the inauguration of one of Sendai’s most important spiritual centres, Toshogu Shrine. After the Aoba shrine was built to commemorate Date Masumune in the Meiji Era (1874), the festival became known as the “Aoba Matsuri”.

The Aoba Matsuri is usually held at the beginning of spring on the third weekend of May (for 2018, May 19~20). On the Saturday is the ‘Yoi Matsuri’ (eve matsuri), where groups of dancers in vibrant garb perform Sendai’s ‘Suzume-Odori’ or ‘sparrow dance’ through the streets of downtown Sendai.  The Suzume-Odori is a joyful, energetic dance performed with colourful fans, said to mimic the flight and movements of a sparrow, one of the symbols of Date Masamune’s family, said to symbolise enthusiasm. On Sunday is the ‘Hon Matsuri’ (main festival) which features a parade of fierce samurai followed by gorgeous festival floats called ‘Yamaboko’.

Tohoku University Suzume Odori Team parading through the streets

Tohoku University Suzume Odori Team performing on the main stage

Photo credit: Joey Dominquez, Philippines

Many different groups of dancers come together to perform the Suzume Odori; from extracurricular school groups, university studies, company employees and professional dance troupes. Last year my university (Tohoku University) sent about 50 international students to participate in the dance. Suzume Odori is usually performed with 2 traditional fans which have a different color on each side. The dances move and jump to the rhythm of the music and taiko drums. The dance is divided into 2 parts: the base dance and the ‘free dance’ which allows the dancers to move freely with music. The movements include spinning, jumping and whirling the fans. It truly resembles the agility of a sparrow.

One of the Yamaboko festival floats along Ichibancho Street

Some samurai on a Yamaboko festival float

Yamaboko lit up at night

Over 70 floats known as ‘Yamaboko’ participate in the festival. They are huge! Each of the floats is decorated with beautiful ornaments and carvings, rice paper, ropes and lanterns! You may even spot some samurai or musicians traveling on or inside the floats. The warriors are present in the festival as a show of Sendai’s strength – they are ready in their armor to protect Sendai City from any advances from enemy clans. Each float is usually carried/pulled along by around 20 men.

The main venue of this festival is Jozenji Avenue, with events also taking place near Kokubuncho, Kotodai Park, and around Aoba ward. Whilst the parade happens along Jozenji Avenue, the main performance stage of the festival is located in the center of Sendai city in Kotodai Park. The audience is usually free to interact and participate in the dances or other performances, including quiz shows! If you’re lucky enough to win a prize you might find yourself presented with some of Sendai’s tasty local produce, like Kamaboko fish cake or Zunda flavoured sweets!

Karage stall

Cotton candy

Chocolate banana and takoyaki stall

Of course, it wouldn’t be a festival without food!! The main stage is surrounded by food stalls! Everything from chocolate bananas, takoyaki, fried kamaboko to international stalls like Indian curries and Samosa! You can’t miss the crowd favourite ‘kakigori’ or crushed-ice to refresh yourself after all that dancing in the hot afternoon.  There are also plenty of game stalls to keep the kiddies (and kids at heart) entertained.

As one of the highlights of Sendai’s festival calendar, you can be sure that the crowds will come from far and wide. Be sure to come into town early to grab a strategic spot for pictures of the parade! Parking is usually pretty impossible so we recommend you train or bus-it into Sendai Station. The main events are all at a walkable distance from either Sendai Station of Kotodai-koen Station on the Namboku line of Sendai’s subway network. It is such a fantastic atmosphere – be sure to drop in and join in the fun!!

Festival Homepage (Japanese): http://www.aoba-matsuri.com/index.html 

More of Tohoku’s exciting summer festivals, yet to come!

By Marsetio, Indonesia

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