Tohoku Summer Festival Guide

The Tohoku region is often described as a sleepy, quiet and somewhat secluded region, home to very gentle, rather shy locals. Clearly, those who hold such an image of Tohoku haven’t visited in summer!

During the sticky humid heat of August, the six most northern prefectures of  Japan’s main island – Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima – burst into life with the rhythm of taiko drumming, traditional hayashi music, lively dancing and excited shouts of ‘wa-shoi, wa-shoi!’

Tohoku’s summer festivals are without a doubt some of the most exciting and unique festivals you will experience in the whole of Japan. It is a true mystery as to why they are still relatively unknown among international tourists, but we are here to enlighten you with the below summer festival guide!


As many of Tohoku’s summer festivals hold their roots in the Tanabata star festival (traditionally held in mid-summer) the festival periods tend to overlap, particularly during the first week of August. Luckily, the partying continues over several days meaning it is definitely possible to ‘festival-hop’ and experience a different festival each day – even all of them over the span of one week – if you can muster the stamina! Challenge accepted.

Let’s get the party started in Aomori and work our way down:


AOMORI


AOMORI CITY – NEBUTA MATSURI

Photo credit: Steven Lee (Indonesia)

There is no question that most famous of Tohoku’s summer festivals is Aomori City’s ‘Nebuta Matsuri’, held every year between August 2~7. The word ‘Nebuta’ (or Neputa/Nefuta, depending on the region) derives from local Aomori dialect for the word ‘nemuri’ meaning sleepiness. It is said that the origins of the Nebuta Matsuri lie in an earlier lantern festival called ‘Nemuri-Nagashi’, created by farmers to dispel the ‘sleep demons’ that came with the mid-summer heat and humidity.

Photo credit: Steven Lee (Indonesia)

The highlight of the festival is the parade of around two dozen giant paper lantern floats created as 3D depictions of scenes of samurai, beasts and mythical creatures from Japanese and Chinese folklore, Kabuki or even modern day narratives. The Nebuta floats are absolutely massive, some reaching up to 12 meters in width/5 meters in height, and often taking a whole year for local groups to design and construct.

Photo credit: Steven Lee (Indonesia)

Every night during the festival period the floats are paraded through the streets (completely by man-power) surrounded by groups of lively dancers in vibrant costumes called ‘Haneto’. On the last night, the parade ends early and moves to the harbor area where some of the floats are transferred to boats and circle the bay whilst fireworks light up the sky.

Photo credit: Joey Dominguez (Philippines)

The Nebuta floats themselves are of course impressive, but it is the haneto dancers that truly create the festival atmosphere; the bells attached to their festival garments jingling as they jovially jump around chanting ‘Rasse-ra, rasse-ra!’. What really separates the Nebuta festival from other large-scale events is that anyone can join in the action! Even tourists can opt to hire (or buy) the special haneto festival garments (gaudy hat and all!) and jump into the massive crowd of dancers. There is no training required for this dance – just a bunch of enthusiasm, a whole lot of energy and maybe a glass or two of sake…!

Check out the video below from ‘Only in Japan‘ to get an idea of what to expect from the incredible Nebuta Matsuri!

Video Credit: Tokyo Street View – Japan, The Beautiful

If you are unable to make it to Aomori in August, never fear! At the ‘Nebuta Museum Warasse’ in Aomori City you can enjoy the festival all year round! Check out the displays of the Nebuta floats, try out some taiko drumming and even get involved in the haneto dancing.

The Many Faces of Summer

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Festival dates:  August 2 ~ 7 (every year)

Parade times: 19:10 to 21:00 August 2 to 6; 13:00 to 15:00 August 7;

Bay Parade and Fireworks: 19:15 to 21:00 August 7

Access: The festival action/parade happens just outside of JR Aomori Station

Hints: Be sure to book accommodation well in advance, as the Nebuta Matsuri is one of the most popular events of the year. If you are unable to find accommodation in Aomori City itself, it is recommend to try looking in another town connected by JR train services (eg. Hirosaki, Hachinohe etc.) and commute in and out of Aomori on festival days. We recommend using hyperdia to source train information, including the last train service! (Best to check the time of the last train before you get too carried away dancing!)

Google Maps:

GOSHOGAWARA CITY – TACHINEPUTA MATSURI

To the west of Aomori City lies Goshogawara City, famous for its own giant lantern festival ‘Tachineputa’; ‘tachi’ meaning standing and ‘neputa’ meaning festival float/lantern. Whilst the name doesn’t leave much else to the imagination, the towering scale of these standing floats is absolutely mind blowing!

 

Much like the Nebuta floats of Aomori, Tachineputa floats usually take around a year to design and construct, although the process is slightly more complicated due to their sheer height. The floats can reach ridiculous heights of up to 23 metres and weigh around 19 tons due to a massive steel rod running through the middle to ensure their structural integrity. Over four days (August 4 ~ August 8) around 15 floats of varying sizes are paraded through the streets at amazing speeds to cries of  ‘Yatte-mare! Yatte-mare!’. The three largest Tachineputa are constructed and stored in the ‘Tachineputa no Yakata’ museum; a huge building which opens completely on one side to let the floats in and out at the beginning and end of the festival. Even after experiencing the lively atmosphere of Aomori’s Nebuta festival, the Taichineputa never fails to impress!

Video Credit: Tokyo Street View – Japan, The Beautiful

Whilst a much smaller town that Aomori City, the music, dancing and chanting of Goshogawara’s festival are no less enthusiastic! Again, if you can’t make it during the festival period, the Tachineputa Museum is open all year around for you to marvel at the previous year’s floats, learn more about the history and perhaps even try making a Neputa lantern to take home with you.

Goshogawara Tachineputa Matsuri

Festival dates: August 4 ~ 8 (every year)

Access: JR Goshogawara Station (Gono Line)

Hints: If you’re a fan of anime writer Osamu Dazai, you can also stop by his childhood family home and museum which is located in Goshogawa City, not far from the station.

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HIROSAKI CITY – NEPUTA MATSURI

 

The name may be easily confused with Aomori’s ‘Nebuta’ festival, but it is Hirosaki City’s NePUta festival (August 1~7) that is said to be the origin of all Nebuta/Neputa festivals. The music and dancing is slightly more subdued and low-key compared to Aomori City, but certainly no less impressive! Around 80 floats parade through the streets of Hirosaki every night during the festival period accompanied by festival music and calls of ‘Yah-yah-doh!’

The floats of the Neputa festival are made in a distinctive fan shape, with two very different designs on the front and back faces. The ‘Kagamie’ (front design) typically depicts dramatic scenes from folklore and the ‘Miokuri’ (back design) boasts a more elegant, subtle design. The 80 floats are all differing sizes and tend to get bigger and bigger as the parade goes on.

One of the most impressive features of the Neputa festival which sets it apart from all others is the presence of the ‘Odaiko’: three giant Taiko drums, the booming sound of which reverberates throughout the town and throughout your entire body!

Video Credit: Tokyo Street View – Japan, The Beautiful

Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri

Festival dates:  August 1~7 (every year)

Access: JR Hirosaki Station (Ou Line)

Hints: Hirosaki is Japan’s largest producer of delicious apples! It is also home to over 50 varieties of apple pie. Spend your recovery day after the festival finding the tastiest one, or take a stroll in the beautiful Hirosaki Castle Park. More Hirosaki hints here.

Google Maps:

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AKITA


AKITA CITY – KANTO MATSURI

Photo credit: Joey Dominguez (Philippines), Supawich Kamonprasertsuk (Thailand)

Aomori’s festivals might be all about the elaborate floats and lively dancing, but Akita’s Kanto Matsuri is all about man-power and skill! ‘Kanto’ are long bamboo poles of varying sizes and lengths adorned with rows of paper lanterns. The largest Kanto is around 12 metres long and carries up to 46 lanterns (lit by real candles), weighing around 45 kg.  This may sound impressive enough, but the highlight of this festival is not so much the Kanto themselves as the Kanto balancers! Each Kanto is lifted by one man (or child) and balanced on its end by the palm of their hand, their shoulder, their forehead, their hip…you name it! After a few minutes the Kanto is then artfully switched between performers, each adding an extension to the pole until the kanto has reached its maximum length. It is truly incredible to witness – you’d be forgiven for thinking the kanto-balancers were professional circus performers, but in fact they are all Akita locals performing techniques that have been passed down from one generation to the next for several centuries.

During the day visitors can enjoy watching Kanto balancing competitions and even practice trying to carry a mini-Kanto themselves, but it is the night-parades that are definitely the highlight! Each evening, different groups of Kanto balancers line up along Chuo-dori in downtown Akita City carrying some 250 Kanto adorned with alight paper lanterns. Once the signal has been given, all performers lift their Kanto into the air and the action begins; around 90 minutes of jaw-dropping skill from performers of all ages!  The festival is held over three days between August 3~6.

Take a peek at the ‘Kanto Matsuri’

Akita Kanto Matsuri

Festival dates:  August 3~6 (every year)

Access: The main events of the festival all take place within around 15 minute walk from JR Akita Station

Hints: Whilst it is possible to just turn up on the day and find a vantage point along the road, the festival can get incredibly crowded especially on a weekend. If you want to ensure your spot you can pre-purchase reserved seating between 2000~3000 a few months before the festival (or on the day if there are still seats left).

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IWATE


 MORIOKA CITY – SANSA ODORI MATSURI

Photo credit: Joey Dominguez (Philippines)

Have a thing for that hypnotic beat of the Taiko drum? This is the festival for you! Listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest Taiko drum festival in the world, Morioka City’s Sansa Odori Matsuri features a parade of over 10,000 Taiko drummers and dancers!

The origin of this festival is the legend of Mitsuishi Shrine. It is said that a long time ago, a demon was wreaking havoc in the local Iwate area. The villagers prayed to the gods of Mitsuishi Shrine to rid them of the demon’s terror. The gods replied by forcing the demon to pledge that he would no longer commit bad deeds by placing his hand on a large rock, leaving his imprint behind (the origin of the name ‘Iwate’ which literally means ‘rock hand’). The locals celebrated the defeat of the demon by dancing and singing ‘Sansa Sansa’ – thus the Sansa Odori tradition was born.

The festival is held every year on August 1~4 along Chuo-dori Avenue in downtown Morioka City. You haven’t experienced Taiko drumming until you’ve felt the rhythm of the Sansa Odori reverberate through your entire body!

Video Credit: Tokyo Street View – Japan, The Beautiful

 

Morioka Sansa Odori Matsuri

Festival dates:  August 1~4 (every year)

Access: JR Morioka Station (Chuo-dori)

Hints: Don’t forget to try your luck at wanko-soba while you’re in Morioka!

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MIYAGI


SENDAI CITY –  TANABATA MATSURI

 

Most of Japan traditionally celebrates the star festival ‘Tanabata’ on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year when, according to Chinese legend and lunar calendar, two stars (Orihime and Hikoboshi) cross paths in the night sky. However, the largest and most famous celebration of Tanabata has actually been held on August 6~8 every year for around 400 years in Sendai City – the capital of the Tohoku region.

Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri is a long standing tradition from the rule of samurai lord Date Masamune. Whilst various festivities take place across the city during the festival period, the main highlight is the hundreds upon hundreds of giant Tanabata decorations made from colourful washi-paper streamers that are installed along the main arcades and shopping streets of downtown Sendai. The 3-5 metre long decorations are usually made by local students, businesses as well as professional Tanabata decoration designers, and hung from 10 metre high bamboo poles in rows across the length of the arcade.

Traditionally, there are seven important elements to each of set of Tanabata decorations, each beckoning good fortune and health. There a long strips of colourful paper called tanzaku on which people will write their hopes and wishes, orizuru paper cranes for long life, toami symbolising a fishing net for a bountiful catch, kinchaku purses for wealth and prosperity, kuzukago to symbolise cleanliness, kamigoromo for better sewing skills (a reference to Orihime, the seamstress star of the Tanabata legend) and, of course, the fukinagashi streamers which represent the fabric made by Orihime and are perhaps the most recognisable decoration of Sendai’s Tanabata.

Behind the scenes of Sendai’s Tanabata festival: Narumiya Kamishoji 

Along with the incredible decorations you will find live music performaces, parades, fireworks and of course plenty of tasty festival food to enjoy throughout the festival! The Tanabata festival is the best time to experience Sendai City at its finest.

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

Festival dates:  August 6~8 (every year)

Access: JR Sendai Station

Hints: A fireworks display is always held on the eve of the festival, August 5, along the banks of the Hirosegawa River.

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YAMAGATA


YAMAGATA CITY – HANAGASA MATSURI

Photo Credit: flickr

Yamagata’s Hanagasa Matsuri is perhaps one of Tohoku’s newest festivals, only becoming an official festival in 1964. ‘Hanagasa’ means ‘flower hat’, referring to the decorative hats that the dancers artfully twirl around to traditional music. The flowers represent the safflower which has traditionally been a very important commodity produced in the Yamagata region.

The highlight of the festival itself is a huge parade of around 10,000 dancers performing coordinated steps and routines in groups, following behind ornate festival floats. Spectators can enjoy several different varieties of the dance from groups of all ages – they may even be lucky enough to join in the dance themselves! Despite its relatively short history, the Hanagasa festival attracts close to a million visitors every year, making it one of the most popular summer festivals in the Tohoku region.

Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri

Festival dates:  August 5~7 (every year)

Access: JR Yamagata Station

Hints: If you are staying at Ginzan Onsen in the mountains of Yamagata, you can enjoy a nightly street performance of the Hanagasa dance during the festival period.

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FUKUSHIMA


FUKUSHIMA CITY – WARAJI MATSURI

By far one of the most unique summer festivals in Tohoku, Fukushima’s Waraji Matsuri features none other than a 12 metre long, 2 ton heavy giant straw sandal (‘Waraji’). In fact, it is the largest Waraji you will find in the whole of Japan. The modern festival has its origins in a much older event – the Dawn Procession of Mt. Shinobu – boasting over 300 years of history. Whilst the Waraji is usually enshrined at Haguro Shrine the top of Mt. Shinobu, during the festival it is proudly paraded through the streets of downtown Fukushima to excited chants of ‘Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!’, in order to pray for good health and safety.

Over two days of festivities visitors can experience everything from fast-paced Waraji races, live music and festival food, to a reggae-style dance parade! This festival definitely has something for everyone, so grab your dancing sandals, bring your family and friends and join the party!

Check out Fukushima Guide’s webpage or facebook for more details.

Video credit: Fukushima Guide

Festival dates:  First Friday and Saturday of August. This year (2018), the festival will be held on August 3-4.

Access: JR Fukushima Station (the festival area is around a 5 minute walk from the East Exit of the station).

Hints: Make a weekend of it and check out some of the other great attractions around Fukushima City – onsen, delicious local food, fruit-picking, hiking and more! Check out Fukushima Guide’s webpage or facebook for more inspiration.

Google Maps:

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If you’re looking to experience partying Japan-style, forget the busy clubs and bars of Tokyo or over-crowded fireworks festivals; a visit to Tohoku in the first week of August should be number one on your bucketlist! A visit to even one of these festivals will leave you questioning any perception of Tohoku as shy and timid!


 SUMMER FESTIVAL READS FROM THE TOHOKU AMBASSADOR CLUB


Exploring Summer Festival Food

The Soul of Tohoku Summer

The Many Faces of Summer

Behind the scenes: Sendai Tanabata

Making Decorations for Sendai’s Tanabata Festival

Aomoriya: Four Festivals, One Resort, All the Apples

Modern Samurai: Fukushima’s Soma Nomaoi

Take a peek at the ‘Kanto Matsuri’

 

Tohoku Ambassador Club

About Tohoku Ambassador Club

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