Summer is not only a wonderful time to hit the wild outdoors, but also an occasion to indulge yourself in food and drink! Across Japan, many cities and towns will have their own version of a summer festival, usually characterised by a marketplace of food stalls (yatais) selling anything from yakitori, karaage or the usual bar grub to choco-bananas and candy strawberries. Some may be held on the grounds of the town/city’s patron shrine or next to a port (for seaside towns).
Perhaps the most famous of all these summer festivals or 祭り (matsuri) in the Tohoku region of Japan are the Nebuta Matsuri (ねぶた祭り) in Aomori, the Kanto Matsuri (竿燈祭り) in Akita and the Tanabata Matsuri (七夕祭り) in Sendai, collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri (東北三大祭り), or Three Great Festivals of Tohoku.All three festivals are held during the same period, and may overlap each other on certain dates. The Nebuta Matsuri kicks off in Aomori City on August 2 every year till August 7. Starting a day later is the Kanto Matsuri in Akita, followed closely behind by the Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai.
I have had the opportunity to witness all three up close and personal, in a whirlwind trip that took me from Aomori to Akita, and then on to Sendai, covering a distance equivalent to a third of Japan.
First up, the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori. Every night, from August 2 – 7, gigantic lantern floats are paraded throughout the city’s streets at night. Followed closely behind by a team of drummers banging away on enormous taiko drums (太鼓), most also feature a contingent of musicians on flutes and tiny cymbals. The floats typically feature scenes from Japanese mythology or history, so expect to see some really frightening scenes such as gods, ghouls, demons, dragons, snakes and multi-eye ogres.
Hotels are typically booked out way in advance, so do lock your dates and make reservations early. Otherwise, you may end up like me. For example, I had to set up base in Hirosaki because accommodation was full in Aomori. Fortunately for me, Hirosaki also has its own local version of Nebuta, which features the ougi-neputa (a fan-shaped neputa). The floats here may be of a smaller scale compared to Aomori, but they make for spectacular viewing nonetheless.
Over in Akita (August 3 – 6), rows of lanterns hung on bamboo poles and balanced by skilful performers take centre-stage. In the day, different groups show off their skills to the beating of drums, flutes and chants of “dokkoisho, dokkoisho” as they compete to see who can hoist the poles the highest while balancing them on their foreheads, waists and shoulders. You can catch the various groups at different venues around Akita Station and the Museum of Art outdoor performance area. At night, the lantern poles are paraded along Chuo Dori street in the city centre.
While both the Nebuta and Kanto Festivals feature parades, drums and flutes, and a chorus of chants, the Tanabata Festival in Sendai (August 6 – 8) has none of these! Instead, tall, gigantic and colourful handcrafted streamers hang from bamboo poles decorate the entire stretch of shopping arcades along Ichibancho-dori (一番町商店街) and Clis Road, about a stone’s throw from Sendai Station. Some feature paper cranes, paper strips with handwritten well-wishes or other forms of origami. These streamers are also the first sight that greets you when you exit Sendai Station. At the end of the shopping arcades at Kotodai Park, stage performances featuring live music and dance as well as a huge open-air carnival of food stalls complete the festivities. LS