*Apologies for the length of this post – it’s a bit epic! If you don’t have time for it all, but do have nine and a half minutes, please skip to the end and watch the last video!*
When I knew I would be going to Japan this year I knew that meant I would finally have a chance to visit Tohoku (東北). Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku I have been trying to figure out a way to visit the region. In my three years living in Japan I had never made it further north on Honshu than Nikko, and it wasn’t until the tragic events of 2011 that I began to realise how much I had been missing out on and what the Tohoku region had to offer.
So, I set about planning where I would go, and somewhere along that planning process I came across Tohoku Rokkonsai (東北六魂祭), or the ‘Six Soul Festival’. This festival was created after the events in March 2011 as a way of celebrating the culture of Tohoku and looking forward to the future. The festival combines the key festivals from the six prefectures of Tohoku: Aomori (青森), Akita (秋田), Iwate (岩手), Miyagi (宮城), Yamagata (山形) and Fukushima (福島). The first festival in 2011 was held in Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture), 2012’s festival was held in Morioka (Iwate Prefecture), 2013’s festival was in Fukushima and this year’s festival was to be held in Yamagata.
The festival dates weren’t announced until the end of January, so I had to wait and see if it would be possible for me to somehow fit the festival in to my trip. Luckily, really luckily, it was! The festival was held this year on 24th and 25th May, and 25th May was the first day of my holiday after the work part of my Japan trip. So, on 25th May I got up really early in my Shinjuku hotel, skipped breakfast, and took a taxi to Tokyo station to catch the first Tsubasa Shinkansen of the day at 7:12am. The train took me straight out of Tokyo up the shinkansen line, through Fukushima and onwards to Yamagata, arriving just after 10am.
I had booked myself a cheap and basic business hotel near the station for a couple of nights, and after dumping all my luggage there I ran straight into town to see what was happening at the festival. I was beyond excited. Not only to be exploring Japan freely, but to be attending a festival on the first day of my holiday, and to finally be in Tohoku.
The station was full of flags advertising the festival, and polite security staff pointing the way…
The weather was a little grey and windy, but I didn’t let that ruin a thing. I had a map of the festival area, but it was easier to just follow the flow of people heading from the station into town. I soon found myself surrounded by the familiar sights and smells of a Japanese festival.
Grabbing some sweet potato chips as a snack, I followed the crowd further into the festival and soon found some young dancers rehearsing and performing in the street to the beat of taiko drums (which I adore!).
Walking through the streets of Yamagata City I was delighted to see Sendai Tanabata Matsuri (仙台七夕まつり) decorations swaying colourfully in the breeze.
Somehow, without any real plan, I managed to get to the parade area at just the right time for the main parade, and managed to find a pretty good spot from which to watch everything. I was surrounded by chattering families and local Tohoku people, and only saw a couple of other foreigners all day. I couldn’t understand much of what was going on around me due to the thick Tohoku dialect and speed of their speech, but loved just listening anyway.
The first festival I saw represented in the parade was the Akita Kantou Festival (竿燈まつり). This festival involves impressively long bamboo poles with paper lanterns hanging from them, which are carried through the streets and balanced by performers. The kantou poles can be up to 12 metres in length, weighing up to 50 kilograms!
The Akita Kantou Festival performers came and parked themselves right where I was standing, so I had a great view of them!
Next came the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠まつり), a festival in which troupes of dancers parade through the streets carrying hats decorated in flowers.
I love the ‘Hanagasa Ondo‘ (花笠音頭) folk song that goes with the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival! Ha Yassho, Makasho!
Next up was the Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り), a dance festival which has its origins in the legend of Mitsuishi. According to the legend, a demon was causing problems for villagers and the god Mitsuishi captured the demon and forced him to swear that he would never commit evil acts again. The promise was sealed by the demon pressing its hand into a large rock. The villagers apparently danced and sang ‘sansa sansa’ when this happened, creating the Sansa Odori.
The next festival to be represented in the parade was the Fukushima Waraji Festival (福島わらじまつり). This slightly random festival is all about a 12 metre long, 2 ton waraji straw sandal made to fit the foot of the Deva king.
Looks like really hard work, doesn’t it? Later in the day I was able to see the waraji up close, and it was massive!
The parade continued, and next up was the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り) – one of Japan’s most famous festivals. This festival is famous for its giant lantern floats which are paraded through the streets at night. Rokkonsai was held during the day, so it didn’t have quite the same effect, but the float was still very impressive!
Amusing dancers accompanied the float…
As the official parade wrapped up, all of the performers danced back along the parade route, which was a great chance to see everyone again! I had moved by this point to a much better position, and some of the performers spotted me, the lone gaijin in the crowd, and happily posed for photos. Everyone was so happy and genki, it was fabulous!
What a festival! But it wasn’t over yet… After the parade I wandered off, again following the crowd rather than any real plan, and found a small music stage with a fantastic group performing called Ho Capito. They were great – really chilled out and nice to listen to.
Next, I found this massive area selling lots of local goods, with mascots (ゆるキャラ) wandering around everywhere and a large stage. I loved the fact that I hadn’t planned my day and yet had somehow managed to find all the good stuff!
They had produced a charity song which was being used as the theme tune for the day, called Tohoku Rock ‘n Ondo (東北rock’n音頭). I’ve used that song to put together a little compilation video of the whole festival – enjoy!
And that was my introduction to Tohoku! My Tohoku adventures continued for a further ten days – watch this space for more posts about the wonderful things I encountered along the way!
If you’re keen to see any of the Tohoku festivals yourself (I know I’m keen to see the real festivals even more now after this sampler!) they happen as follows:
Akita Kantou Festival (竿燈まつり), 3rd – 6th August, official website
Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), 1st – 7th August, official website
Fukushima Waraji Festival (福島わらじまつり), 2nd – 3rd August, official website
Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り), 1st – 4th August, official website
Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり), 6th – 8th August, official website
Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠まつり), 5th – 7th August, official website
Tohoku Rokkonsai (東北六魂祭), around the end of May/beginning of June, official website
*NB. The 2015 Tohoku Rokkonsai will likely be in Akita, or Aomori. Keep an eye on the website around the end of January for an announcement!