Feel the Heat of Summer Excitement in Japan with the “Three Great Festivals of Tohoku”

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Brilliant Ornaments on Display at the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri (Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture)

The luxurious and gorgeous Tanabata Matsuri, overflowing with vivid colors

The highlight of this festival is without a doubt the lavish Tanabata ornaments that are put on display. These giant decorations are lined up along the Chuo Dori shopping arcade stretching roughly 800 meters (0.5 miles) east from Sendai Station, and then from its endpoint along the Ichibancho Dori arcade extending north and south for another 900 meters (0.6 miles), competing against each other in splendor and showiness. Although there are several different types of decorations, the most commonly-seen type is a hanging ornament known as a “fuki-nagashi” (“blowing in the wind”), a streamer made from thin strips of paper gathered into bunches. These paper strips symbolize a kind of weaving yarn mentioned in folk tales about Tanabata, fluttering gracefully in the summer breeze. Other, more simple decorations made from bamboo can also be seen in the nearby shopping streets.

A magnificent fireworks show is held on the night before the festival, with as many as 16,000 fireworks launched to light up the night sky. The location of this show is the area around the Hirose River, which runs through the city. This area is also conveniently close to Sendai Station, a terminal for the shinkansen and other train lines.

©SENDAI CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY.
©SENDAI CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY.

Wishes written on “tanzaku” paper and tied to bamboo

“Tanabata” was originally one of the “sekku” (seasonal festivals), traditional events held at seasonal turning points, where people would wish for good health and prosperity. It is believed that if you write a wish on a “tanzaku” (long, thin strip of paper) and then tie it to the branch of a bamboo plant, your wish will be granted. When the season for Tanabata approaches, bamboo plants decorated with colorful tanzaku and other paper ornaments are put on display in towns all across Japan, and the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri takes this custom to an even grander scale. Although Tanabata events are generally held on July 7th, in Sendai the festival is held one month later as a holdover from historical traditions, with the date of August 7th treated as the middle day of the 3-day long celebration.

Visitors, of course, are also welcome to join in and make their own wishes as part of the festivities. A cultural experience section where anyone can participate in the tradition is set up in the festival’s open area at the north end of Ichibancho Dori, so you can write your own wishes on the prepared tanzaku paper and tie them onto bamboo in the hopes that they will be granted. You can also try making a type of paper decoration known as a “nanatsu-kazari” (“seven decoration”).

©SENDAI CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY.

Enjoyable stage events and delicious local food

If you feel a bit tired after strolling through the festival areas, the many delicious local food dishes available are an excellent way to recharge. You can find stalls and shops lined up in the open space, which offer Sendai’s specialty beef tongue dishes, mitarashi-dango (rice dumplings) with sweet glaze, and local sake brewed in Miyagi Prefecture.

At the stage set up in the open space, adults and children alike can enjoy performances by the “Omotenashi Busho-tai” whose members play the roles of Japanese military commanders from the 16th and 17th centuries, or powerful musical shows featuring Japanese drums. When night falls, a type of traditional dance known as a “bon dance” is held, where people dance while walking around a high wooden stage, following the rhythm of songs, as well as music from drums and other instruments played on the stage. Anyone is welcome to join in the circle of bon dancers and participate with them.

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Sendai Tanabata Matsuri(Japanese)

Dates: August 6 to 9 every year; fireworks show is held on August 5 (August 9 in case of rain)

Workshops for Japanese traditional culture (tea, origami, calligraphy, flower arranging, yukata)

The Powerful Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

©JTA ©JNTO
©JTA ©JNTO

Brightly-lit nebuta towering above, amid the lively voices of dancers

“Nebuta” are huge float-like figures made of papier-mache and illuminated by light sources located inside them. After being placed on wheeled platforms that are 2 meters (6.5 feet) large, they generally measure around 5 m (16 feet) in height, 9 m (30 feet) in width, and 7 m (23 feet) in length, weighing roughly 4 tons (2204 pounds per ton) each. This festival features over 20 of these lined up in a row, which are led in a procession along a 3.1-km (1.9-mile) course. 500 to 2000 people accompany each nebuta platform, each with his or her own duties, and they include people responsible for pulling the platforms forward, dancers known as “haneto”, and musicians such as flute and drum players.

It takes around 2 hours for all of the nebuta to make their way down the length of the course. All this time, the haneto festival dancers jump about and dance alongside them, their vigorous chants of “Rasse-ra-! Rasse-ra-!” echoing throughout the streets.

Nebuta based on themes from Japanese myths and legends

©Yasufumi Nishi ©JNTO
©Yasufumi Nishi ©JNTO

The Nebuta Matsuri is believed to be a variant of the “seirei-nagashi” (“sending off spirits”) custom of casting lanterns and offerings into rivers or the ocean to mourn for the souls of the deceased. It is also thought to have its roots in Tanabata festivals, but neither theory on its origin is certain. There are records from around the beginning of the 18th century that describe people holding lanterns while walking and dancing, in imitation of festivals from other areas, and over time those lanterns became larger and larger until they became the gigantic decorations of today. The Nebuta Matsuri was named a nationally-designated significant intangible folk cultural asset in 1980.

The designs used for nebuta are selected from themes found in ancient Japanese mythology and legends passed down through time, each one requiring 3 months to produce. Companies wishing to operate their own nebuta in the festival make requests to specialized craftspeople known as “nebuta-masters”, who then assemble a group of workers under them. These teams work for a full year creating nebuta that will be used for the mere 6 days of the festival, with only around 15 nebuta-masters believed to be in Japan today. Completed nebuta are reviewed by a combination of expert judges and general judges selected from the public, on criteria such as their design composition, color, lighting contrast (illumination effects), artistic expression (sense of movement, idea planning, etc.), and level of detail, with grand prizes and other awards presented to outstanding works. On the festival’s final night, 5 nebuta that have received awards are loaded onto boats and displayed while being led over the waters of the sea nearby. The sight of these nebuta floating across the water at the festival site while fireworks illuminate the night sky above them is a magical, wondrous scene that is sure to captivate anyone who sees it. Having their creations able to participate in this finale must without a doubt be the highest honor for the people who worked so hard to produce them.

Dressing in “haneto” formal wear to join in the festival

The sounds of the festival music and the chants of “Rasse-ra-!” are likely to make anyone want to join in and dance along. The one and only condition for participating as a dancer is that you must wear a type of formal dress called a “haneto”. There is no need to register in advance or even make a request on the same day, since the haneto wear is available for purchase or rental. Please check the official website for details.

Note, however, that there are certain rules that must be followed by all participants, including “Assemble at the waiting area 30 minutes before the nebuta depart”, “Always follow the directions of the Executive Committee members”, and “Participants are not allowed to carry whistles and similar items.” Please check the rules thoroughly and follow them so that the festival can be an enjoyable experience for all.

This festival can be considered to mark the peak of summertime, and after it has ended, signs of the seasonal shift to autumn draw near in Aomori.

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Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Dates: August 2 to 7 every year

Stunning Performance of Akita Kanto Matsuri (Akita City, Akita Prefecture)

The highlight of unbelievable skill shown by “sashite” who hold the “kanto” poles

“Kanto” are long vertical bamboo poles with several horizontal bamboo bars attached cross-wise along their length, from which many paper lanterns are hung. The largest of these kanto measure 12 m (39 feet), around the same height as a 4-story building, and weigh 50 kg (110 pounds). The highlight of this festival is the astounding skill displayed by performers called “sashite” who hold and support these poles.

5 basic skills are shown during the performances. In 4 of them, “palm”, “forehead”, “shoulder”, and “hip”, the performers support the kanto poles using the indicated areas of their body. In the 5th, known as “nagashi”, the performers steady the poles so that they can be easily passed on to the next performers after them. Expert sashite can execute these skills at the same time they are also using both of their hands for other actions, such as spinning Japanese umbrellas or waving folding fans. They may also add bamboo sections onto the poles to make them taller, but the taller they are, the more they will bend with greater and greater force, at times even snapping in two from the weight. Observers often cheer the sashite performers on with calls of “Dokkoisho-, dokkoisho-“.

Accessories and festival items that let traditions and expert skill shine through

Attention must also be given to the accessories and other items used in the festival. Since this festival does not feature any extravagant ornamental platforms or decorations, it is sustained by the use of simple items that have been continually handed down through the generations.

For example, each time the festival is held, great numbers of paper lanterns are used and often destroyed, by being hit against each other, being damaged if the kanto poles fall, or catching on fire from candles. However, each one of the 10,000 or so lanterns used is made with dedicated care by hand. Also, the drums played during the festival are the same ones used every year and adjusted each time, since it is said that the sound of a 10-year old drum is much better than that of a new one. Furthermore, the nearly 260 bamboo sections used for the kanto poles, the larger drums played to rouse excitement, and the short coats worn by participants with their simple design and distinctive traditional dark blue color, are all items that are hand-made by craftspeople. The attention given even to accessories like these lets you truly feel the pride of artisans who have reached the peak of their crafts while preserving ancient traditions.

Kanto poles symbolize stalks of rice with wishes for rich harvests

It is said that the origin of the Kanto Matsuri stems from the tradition of “nemuri-nagashi” (“sending away sleepiness”). In this custom, people walked while carrying pieces of bamboo for Tanabata and then cast them into rivers while praying to be rid of the drowsiness caused by fatigue in the heat of summer, as well as from sickness and disaster. Written records indicate that from at least the year 1789, this tradition had taken on a form where kanto poles with lanterns hung from bamboo bars were held upright as a sign of reverence.

Today, the festival is not only celebrated to pray for health and safety, but with the kanto poles themselves symbolizing rice stalks and the hanging lanterns likened to straw rice bags, it also represents the wish for bountiful harvests. This festival was named a nationally-designated significant intangible folk cultural asset in 1980, and is now enjoyed by spectators from across the globe.

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Akita Kanto Festival

Dates: August 3 to 6 every year