Summer Sojourns (Part 2) – Tohoku’s Big Three

DSC03736Summer 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).

DSC03899Perhaps 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.

DSC03799First 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.

DSC03998Over 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.

DSC04036_copyWhile 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

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Hirosaki の Hanami 弘前の花見

Golden Week in Japan is one of the most highly anticipated holiday periods in the Japanese calendar. Hotels in popular tourist destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Sapporo are reserved weeks or even months ahead of time. Crowds throng major cities. Locals picnic and party under cherry blossoms.

日本でのゴールデンウィークは、日本のカレンダーで最も期待される休暇の一つです。 東京、京都、札幌など人気観光地のホテルは、数週間前から数ヶ月前までに予約されています。 大都市は混雑している。 地元の人々はピクニックと桜の下でパーティーを行います。

Like the Japanese, I, too, have been looking forward to a much welcome respite from school. A chance to get out of Hokkaido and explore another part of Japan. I have never had the opportunity to travel during cherry blossom season before, so I was really pumped up for my maiden hanami experience. I opted for Hirosaki, a small city in the Aomori prefecture in Tohoku, or Northeastern Japan – rated by many travel sites as one of the top three cherry blossoms sites in Japan.

日本人のように、私も学校の休みで待っていました。 北海道をでかけて日本の別の地域を探索するチャンス。 私はかつて桜の季節に旅行する機会がなかったので、私は初めの花見体験のために本当にわくわくした 東北の青森県の小都市、弘前は、日本のトップ3の桜のサイトの一つとして数多くの旅行サイトで評価しました。DSC03311Located southwest of Aomori City, Hirosaki is about a 45-minute train ride away. The small city of just under 200,000 people was built around the Hirosaki Castle (弘前城), a three-storey keep surrounded by a fortified moat. With more than 2,500 cherry blossoms trees surrounding the moat and castle, Hirosaki Park makes for one of the most spectacular hanami sites come spring.

青森県の南西に位置し、弘前駅から電車で約45分です。 人口は180,000 くらいです。弘前城は、要塞堀に囲まれた3階建ての建設されました。 堀と城を囲む2,500本以上の桜の木がある弘前パークは、春になると最も華やかな花見のひとつになります。

During my visit, the cherry blossoms in the park are well past the “full bloom” status, meaning, the moats are littered with fallen cherry blossom petals, turning the moats into beautiful pink “carpets”. Entrance to the park is free, although an admission charge of 310 yen is required if you want to visit Hirosaki Castle.

私の訪れている間に、公園の桜は満開を迎えています。つまり、堀は桜の花びらで覆われていて、美しいピンクの「カーペット」になっています。 弘前城を訪れたい場合は、310円の入場料が必要ですが、公園への入場は無料です。DSC03233At the time of my visit, the castle keep has been shifted about 70 metres south of the crimson bridge, which has graced many a tourist promotional photo due to renovation works to strengthen the castle foundation. In other words, you are highly unlikely to reproduce a photo with the castle, crimson bridge and cherry blossoms in juxtaposition in the same photograph.

私の訪れた時には、城砦が、城の基礎を強化するために改修工事。多くの観光写真は、弘前の前に、桜と赤橋が一緒に入った。つまり、同じ写真 (城、紅の橋、桜が並んでいる写真)を再現することはできません。

The annual Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival (22 April – 7 May) transforms the park into a massive carnival, with boisterous crowds, numerous food and game stalls, and fireworks in the evening.  LS

弘前桜の祭り(4月22日〜5月7日)は、夕方には、数多くの食べ物や遊び場、花火など、大規模なカーニバルに変わって、にぎやかな雰囲気になります。 LSDSC03228

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