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10 Must-See Tohoku Festivals: Experience Epic 'Matsuri' in Northern Japan and Discover a World of Tradition

10 Must-See Tohoku Festivals: Experience Epic 'Matsuri' in Northern Japan and Discover a World of Tradition

Last updated: 22 January 2021

Discover a world of tradition and immerse yourself in the vibrant culture of Japan's Tohoku region. From the dazzling Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori to the captivating Kanto Matsuri in Akita, these festivals showcase the region's rich cultural heritage.

In this article, we'll take you on a journey through ten must-see Tohoku festivals. Each festival offers a unique experience, representing the distinctive traits and traditions of the different regions throughout the seasons. Brace yourself for stunning performances, vivid colors, and an electrifying atmosphere that will captivate your senses.

Table of Contents
  1. A Festival Extravaganza: Tohoku's Year-Round Celebration
  2. 1. Aomori Nebuta Festival (August 2-7 every year)
  3. 2. Goshogawara Tachi Neputa Festival (August 4-8 every year)
  4. 3. Akita Kanto Festival (August 3-6 every year)
  5. 4. Omagari Hanabi National Fireworks Competition (Last Saturday of August, every year)
  6. 5. Yokote Snow Festival (Kamakura) (February 15-16 every year)
  7. 6. Morioka Sansa Odori (August 1-4 every year)
  8. 7. Sendai Tanabata Festival (August 6-8 every year)
  9. 8. Sendai Aoba Festival (3rd Sunday in May, every year)
  10. 9. Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (August 5-7 every year)
  11. 10. Soma Nomaoi (Last Sat-Mon of July every year)

A Festival Extravaganza: Tohoku's Year-Round Celebration

The Tohoku Region is renowned for its multitude of festivals, particularly during the summer season. In early August, a delightful convergence of festivals takes place, offering visitors the opportunity to experience multiple Tohoku events simultaneously.

However, the festivities don't end with summer. Throughout the year, a diverse array of festivals awaits. For instance, the Sendai Aoba Festival awaits in late May, when verdant greenery is at its peak, while the Yokote Snow Festival enchants visitors in mid-February with its enchanting snowy landscapes.

Given the popularity of these festivals, it's essential to plan ahead and secure accommodations in advance. Hotels, ryokan, and other inns tend to fill up quickly during these vibrant celebrations. So, make your reservations ahead of time to ensure a seamless and memorable festival experience.

1. Aomori Nebuta Festival (August 2-7 every year)

photo: Aomori Tourism and Convention Association
photo: Aomori Tourism and Convention Association

The Aomori Nebuta Festival showcases magnificent floats known as "Nebuta," which are colossal warrior dolls embodying traditional Japanese mythology.

The festival's origins have sparked various theories, but it is widely believed to be a fusion of the Tanabata Festival, originating from China, and local customs involving the dispatch of spirits and the transfer of ailments into dolls.

This fusion gave birth to the enchanting Nebuta Nagashi, a ritual where lanterns are crafted and set afloat on flowing rivers. To this day, on the festival's final day, Nebuta floats are ceremoniously released into the sea from Aomori Port.

The main event features a grand parade along Aomori City's main street, showcasing approximately 20 majestic Nebuta floats. These floats mesmerize spectators with their dynamic movements, including spins and close interactions with the audience.

The festival's highlight is the spirited "Haneto" dance, performed with gusto while chanting the energetic phrase, "Rassera, Rassera!" (similar to "irasshai," meaning "welcome" in the local dialect). In Aomori City, you can even rent a costume and joyously participate in the Haneto dance yourself.

2. Goshogawara Tachi Neputa Festival (August 4-8 every year)

2. Goshogawara Tachi Neputa Festival (August 4-8 every year)

Among the various Neputa-related festivals held across Aomori Prefecture, the Goshogawara Tachi-Neputa stands out for its exceptionally colossal Neputa floats, towering at approximately 20 meters in height.

The earliest documented record of Goshogawara Tachi-Neputa dates back to around 1900. It is believed that influential figures of Aomori Prefecture during that era commissioned these immense Neputa floats as symbols of power and prestige.

On the festival evening, the streets extending from Goshogawara Station come alive with a magnificent display of colossal Neputa floats. Around 15 of these gigantic masterpieces are paraded through the city, accompanied by spirited chants of "Yattemare, Yattemare!" (meaning "Let's do it, let's do it!"). Once the festival concludes, you can continue to admire the Neputa year-round at the Tachi Neputa Museum in the city.

  • Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival
    • Address Various places in Goshogawara City, Aomori Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0173-38-1515
    • Fee: Free, 3000 yen for bleacher seat

3. Akita Kanto Festival (August 3-6 every year)

3. Akita Kanto Festival (August 3-6 every year)

The Akita Kanto Festival paints the night sky of Akita in vibrant hues. Its origins can be traced back to 1789 when the Neburi-nagashi event was held during summer to ward off evil spirits and diseases.

As the festival unfolds, magnificent pole lanterns called "kanto" are set ablaze. The primary venue, Kanto-odori, located a convenient 15-minute walk from Akita Station, becomes adorned with the mesmerizing glow of approximately 280 kanto lanterns, organized into around 70 groups.

These kanto lanterns are remarkable in size, with some weighing up to 50 kg and spanning 12 meters in length, adorned with 46 lanterns. Witness the incredible dexterity of performers known as "sashite" as they skillfully balance a lit kanto lantern on their palm, forehead, shoulders, and waist. After the performances, during the "Fureai-no-toki" event, visitors have the opportunity to take photos with the sashite and even touch the lanterns.

During daylight hours, head to the bustling Area Nakaichi Square to witness the daytime lanterns and watch sashite compete, showcasing their extraordinary skills.

4. Omagari Hanabi National Fireworks Competition (Last Saturday of August, every year)

4. Omagari Hanabi National Fireworks Competition (Last Saturday of August, every year)

With a history spanning over 100 years, the Omagari Fireworks Competition in Akita Prefecture has evolved from its origins as a shrine festival in 1910. Today, it stands as a grand-scale Tohoku fireworks competition, attracting around 27 esteemed "fireworks masters" who collectively unleash a breathtaking display of approximately 18,000 fireworks.

The competition comprises four distinct categories: daytime fireworks featuring vibrant smoke colors, starburst/ball-type fireworks, freestyle fireworks, and creative fireworks. Remarkably, this tournament is the only one in the country where spectators can marvel at colorful patterns painted across the daytime sky through red, yellow, and blue smoke fireworks. As night falls, traditional round and flower-shaped fireworks illuminate the scene, accompanied by creatively designed fireworks that form mesmerizing shapes and patterns synchronized to music.

The exclusive venue for this awe-inspiring tournament is situated between the Omagari Fireworks Bridge and the Himegami Bridge. The strategic location, with the river flowing between the launch site and the viewing area, ensures an unobstructed view for the audience, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the captivating beauty of the fireworks.

5. Yokote Snow Festival (Kamakura) (February 15-16 every year)

5. Yokote Snow Festival (Kamakura) (February 15-16 every year)

For around 450 years, Yokote City in Akita Prefecture has been the home of a cherished event, born out of devotion to the god of water. Participants enter small huts made of snow, known as "kamakura," where they offer prayers, present monetary offerings, and seek blessings for the well-being of their families and prosperous business ventures.

Since 1954, this venerable tradition has been celebrated as the Yokote Snow Festival, coupled with the Bonden Festival. During Bonden, locals wield beautifully adorned long sticks as they pray for the safety of the town and the success of agriculture. Today, this festival has become a renowned attraction that epitomizes the spirit of Yokote City.

In ancient Japan, children were believed to possess a special purity, bringing them closer to the divine. Even today, young locals enter the kamakura, graciously inviting visitors inside to worship, offering amazake (sweet rice wine) and mochi. With approximately 80 kamakura scattered across different parts of Yokote City, visitors can immerse themselves in the enchanting scenery created by these unique snow huts, enjoying both the festivity and the breathtaking winter landscape.

  • Yokote Snow Festival (Kamakura)
    • Address Various locations in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0182-33-7111
    • Fee: Free

6. Morioka Sansa Odori (August 1-4 every year)

Photo: Morioka Sansa Odori Executive Committee
Photo: Morioka Sansa Odori Executive Committee

Dating back to the 1600s, the Morioka-san Dance Festival showcases the delightful fusion of gentle Japanese drum beats and graceful dance, captivating audiences with the alluring essence of Iwate Prefecture. Its origins can be traced to dances performed in jubilation after local deities vanquished rampant demons that had plagued the region. To this day, an annual dance is dedicated to Mitsuishi Shrine, where the demons pledged to renounce evil deeds forever.

The festival's centerpiece is the Miseru Sansa Parade, featuring over 30,000 dancers and taiko drummers parading through the bustling streets of Morioka City. At the commencement of the parade, don't miss the enchanting "Miss Sansa Odori," where elegantly dressed women adorned in beautiful kimonos captivate spectators with their mesmerizing dances. Following the parade, tourists are invited to freely participate in the lively ring dance, adding their own joyful spirit to the festivities.

  • Morioka Sansa Odori Festival
    • Address Various places in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture
    • Phone Number 019-624-5880
    • Phone: 019-624-5880 (Morioka Sansa Odori Executive Committee)
      Fee: Free

7. Sendai Tanabata Festival (August 6-8 every year)

photo: Sendai Tanabata Matsuri Kyosankai
photo: Sendai Tanabata Matsuri Kyosankai

The vibrant city of Sendai comes alive during the Sendai Tanabata Festival, adorned with more than 3,000 traditional Sasakazari decorations gently swaying in the breeze. With roots dating back to the 1600s, this time-honored festival attracts over 2 million visitors annually.

The streets of Sendai and its local shopping districts are adorned with an abundance of colorful Tanabata decorations, featuring streamers crafted from Japanese paper and intricate paper cranes. These captivating displays showcase seven distinct types of decorations, each symbolizing wishes for improved skills or good health.

In modern times, visitors are free to write their wishes on paper strips, which are then displayed throughout various locations in the city. While in the past, wishes were predominantly focused on academics and calligraphy, today's festival encourages individuals to actively participate in manifesting their desires. The Tanabata Festival serves as a reminder that it is not merely an occasion for passive observation but an opportunity to actively engage, inscribing heartfelt wishes and setting them on the path to fulfillment.

8. Sendai Aoba Festival (3rd Sunday in May, every year)

8. Sendai Aoba Festival (3rd Sunday in May, every year)

The Sendai Aoba Festival traces its roots back to the esteemed Sendai Festival, which held great significance at the Toshogu shrine since 1655. Over time, it transformed into the Aoba Festival, dedicated to the Aoba Shrine honoring Date Masamune, the illustrious founder of Sendai. Held on May 24th, the anniversary of Masamune's passing, the festival underwent a temporary hiatus but was revived in 1985, evolving into the grand celebration it is today.

Jozenji-dori, adorned with magnificent zelkova trees, takes center stage during the Yoi Festival, held on the eve of the third Sunday in May. This charming street becomes the backdrop for the lively "Sendai Suzume Odori," also known as the "sparrow dance," where dancers dressed in vibrant costumes flutter and hop like sparrows, delighting onlookers.

The festival's pinnacle unfolds the following day, featuring an awe-inspiring procession of armored warriors carrying the revered "Masamune Mikoshi Togyo," believed to embody the spirit of Masamune himself. The parade showcases resplendent floats, accompanied by the captivating Sendai Suzume Odori dance, creating a mesmerizing spectacle that leaves spectators in awe.

  • Sendai Aoba Matsuri
    • Address Jozenji-dori (plus other locations), Aoba-ku, Sendai-shi, Miyagi-ken
    • Phone: 022-223-8441 (Sendai/Aoba Matsuri Kyosankai)
      Fee: Free

9. Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (August 5-7 every year)

photo: Hanagasa Yamagata Prefecture Council Executive
photo: Hanagasa Yamagata Prefecture Council Executive

The Yamagata Hanagasa Festival enthralls spectators with a multitude of dancers adorned in vivid costumes, gracefully moving in synchronized group dances while energetically shouting, "Yasho, Makasho!"

Participating groups, including companies, schools, and volunteers, don distinctive costumes and carry Hanagasa, or flower umbrellas, adorned with safflowers, Yamagata Prefecture's emblematic flower.

Traditionally, dance styles varied across different regions. However, in 1963, the elegant choreography of the Kunpu Mogamigawa Hanagasa-Odori was introduced to facilitate widespread participation and learning. In 1998, the Zao Gyoko Hanagasa-Odori, exclusively for men, was added. The festival also features various other dances, such as the dynamic "Kasa Mawashi" (Umbrella Spinning) and the innovative "Sosaku Odori" (Creative Dancing).

A grand parade of approximately 10,000 dancers gracefully weaves along the 1.2 km-long main street of Yamagata City, painting a vibrant summer scene that showcases the city's lively spirit and cultural richness.

  • Yamagata Hanagasa Festival
    • Address Nanokamachi~Bunshokan, Tokamachi, Honmachi, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata-ken,
    • Phone: 023-642-8753 (Hanagasa Yamagata Prefecture Council Executive Office)
      Fee: Free

10. Soma Nomaoi (Last Sat-Mon of July every year)

10. Soma Nomaoi (Last Sat-Mon of July every year)

With a history spanning approximately 1,000 years, Somano Maoi is a captivating traditional event where you can witness the awe-inspiring sight of fully armored warriors riding on horses. This spectacle is said to have originated from a training exercise wherein horses were released in open fields, simulating the pursuit of enemy forces.

The three-day festival's highlight is the exhilarating "Kachu Keiba Horse Race" held in the Haramachi District of Minamisoma City. Here, courageous equestrian warriors, adorned in armor, remove their helmets and affix white headbands to their heads. With flags held high, they gallop forward with unwavering determination, evoking a sense of samurai valor resonating even in our modern times.

  • Soma Nomaoi
    • Address Various locations, Minamisoma-shi,Fukushima-ken
    • Phone: 0244-22-3064、0244-24-5263(Soma Nomaoi Executive Committee Office)
      Fee: Festival Entry, 1,000 yen

Text by: SHOE PRESs

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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