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att. Culture - The Festivals in Tohoku
att. Culture - The Festivals in Tohoku
att.JAPAN Issue 17, July 2004

The Festivals in Tohoku


Yamagata hanagasa Festival Dynamic festivals, the great outdoors, mouhwatering local delicacies, and hotsprings. Local summer festivals in Tohoku are all held around the same time, making it possible to see them one after the next, while all the time seeing the local sights.

 Soma Nomaoi (Horse Chasing)
Soma Nomaoi (Horse Chasing), held annually from July 23rd to the 25th, is a historic re-enactment of a military practice that was established some 1,000 years ago during Japan's civil war era. Some 600 modern day knights celebrate this ancient practice of capturing the wild horses, which in ancient times, once caught were dedicated to the Gods.
Soma Nomaoi On the first, day various events celebrating the role of horses past and present are held, but the main festival then takes place on the second day where you can see activities such as displays, races and general demonstrations of horsemanship. Fierce warriors clad in armor and helmets add dramatically to the power and spirit of the events as they march gallantly along. The Nomagake ritual, held on the final day, is a sacred festival where wild, untamed horses are caught by hand and later purified. Soma Nomaoi has a deep and meaningful link to the hearts of the local residents which is why the festivities are held on such open and spacious grounds.
As there are so many different events to see at about the same time it is advisable to go along and catch the main highlights while enjoying the local seasonal specialities of hokki, a type of shellfish, and uni (sea urchin), and a side trip to nearby Fukushima with its hot springs and wealth of local sights is never a bad idea.

 The Morioka Sansa Dance
Morioka Sansa Dance Drumbeats shake the earth, echoing off the buildings as flutes ring out in the summer sky. Over 20 thousand dancers cloaked in yukata move along almost floating upon this strong rhythm, and following the parade people dance along in circular formation with sightseers free to join this pulsating venue of numerous moving rings at will.
The Sansa Dance was originally a kind of obon dance but it also narrates a local folk story of an evil goblin and the Great Stone of Mitsuishi Shrine. The weary locals prayed to the stone to get rid of the goblin. In return the Stone's enshrined God caught the goblin, making it promise never to return to the area and in his rush to depart the goblin left his handprint on the boulder while fleeing. The ecstatic villagers joyously dance around the stone to celebrate these events while cheering and singing "sansa, sansa" in praise of the dance.
Not far from Morioka, Chusonji, Geibikei, Tono, Jodogahama, Ryusendo, Koiwai Farm, and Hachimantai are some of the numerous places of interest in Iwate well worth a visit and for the peckish, don't miss out on the popular reimen (cold noodles) and wanko soba.

 The 'Hot' festival of Michinoku, Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri This festival of fire shatters and lights up the black of night while giant and powerful floats are designed with such magnificence that they will blow you away. The Nebuta (gigantic paper figures) sat atop the floats are themed after traditional folklore and take all year to craft and produce.
In front of the floats ohayashi performers-cum-musicians beat out the rhythm that drives this festival into the skins of their taiko drums. A group of 2,000 hanetos, a group of festival dancers decorated with bells, flower hats (hanagasa), that dance with sleeves rolled up in tune to all the voices that shout "rasserah" follow behind. Their bells jingle at every step and the dancers project the rhythm along with the beat of the ohayashi drummers all across town.
To be a haneto all you have to do is be dressed as one and be at the appointed starting point before they begin the dancing. All and sundry are welcome to join in the festivities and costumes are on sale nearby or available for rent.
During the festival, a two-hour parade is held daily from 7 to 9pm. On the last day, Nebutas float slowly along the ocean to a background of fireworks. After having seen the Nebuta floats bouncing on land with haneto dancing all around, the ocean Nebuta are an entirely new and enthralling sight to behold.
If the sun is shining when you visit, why don't you check out Towada Lake, the Oirase Mountain Stream, and Mt. Hakkodasan. Or, for those with relaxation on their mind, Tohoku is a treasure-trove of hot spring spas: Aomori hosts Asamushi Onsen and Yachi Onsen to name but 2 with many many other wonderful spas dotting a landscape where the popular Aomori seafood of sweet and delicious scallops (hotate), are often to be found.

 Hirosaki Neputa Festival
Hirosaki Neputa Festival Brightly colored warriors painted on Neputa shaped as lanterns and known as Ougi-Neputa and doll shaped Kumi-Neputas are all based on ancient Chinese novels like "Sangokushi" ("Three-Kingdom Saga") and "Suikoden" ("The Water Margin"), and are paraded through Hirosaki City.
Gorgeous yet dynamic are the Aomori Nebuta's three-dimensional moving lanterns, while Hirosaki Neputa's fan-shaped lanterns are elegant in part due to their lack of movement.
A short journey down the coast to the Tsugaru Peninsula is a perfect way to use up some extra daylight hours. The strong winds atop Cape Tappi Misaki would no doubt sweep even the most surefooted dragons off their feet and the kanji characters in the name for this cape mean just that dragon; flying, getting blown away; and cape.
Another feature of the area is Shayo-kan in the 20th century author Osamu Dazai's Memorial Hall in Kanagi Town, an intriguing historic building in its own rite and the nearby mountainous Shirakami region, so picturesque it has even been selected as a World Heritage site, is also close-by.

 Kanto Festival, Akita
Akita Kanto Festival At the Kanto Festival in Akita, lanterns illuminate the main street as if it were the Milky Way itself. Sending off light in all directions, paper lanterns represent bales of rice and the bamboo lantern poles or kantos represent the stalks and ears of the rice plant - a staple of the nation and Tohoku in particular.
The performers balance the lantern poles using their palms, forehead, shoulders, lower back, or hips, while all the time shouting out the nationally recognized chant of encouragement "dokkoisho, dokkoisho".
Keeping the kanto balanced using the hips and lower back is said to be the most difficult of the techniques used as a kanto is a vertical bamboo pole with smaller horizontal poles of lanterns attached and measures up to 12 meters in length and 50kg in weight, usually consisting of between 24 and 46 lanterns.
The kanto demonstrations don't stop at a mere balancing act however, additional poles are added during the show, bending and adding weight to its overall construction, and making the performers work even more vigorously against the law of gravity. For those with more of an interest in doing rather than watching, some time is also set aside for visitors to try their own hand at this amazing balancing act.
While touring the Akita area, it is recommended you take a drive out along the Oga Peninsula. With a deep blue ocean and landscape changing constantly at every turn and bend in the road this is the perfect driving course.
Down by the water, visitors can see a dynamic scene of waves crashing against strange and bizarre rock formations where stones formed into various shapes by the hands of Father Time can be found and admired. In addition, and once the driving is done there is no end to the number of hot springs you can find with the healing waters of Tamagawa or Nyuto Onsen and the local specialty of Inaniwa udon noodles and shotturu nabe (pot soup) recommended as regional 'must tries'.

 Hanagasa Festival, Yamagata
Yamagata Hanagasa Festival The Hanagasa Festival is also known in some parts of the world as the Flower Hat Festival. The dance originated as a rice-planting dance where locals would pray for a successful bumper crop. The red hats represent the safflower (benibana), a flower endemic to the Yamagata area. To commemorate, over 10,000 dancers in the Hanagasa Parade twirl hats while dancing behind gorgeously decorated floats down the main street as shouts combining the passion and the fervor of the festival are heard in the form of "yassho, makassho" and originate from each and every corner of the town. Bold Hanagasa drums give the dancers the boost of energy that keeps them in motion and visitors are welcome to join in as those all around shout "yassho, makkasho" to accompany the stirring beat of the drums.
This festival is unchanged since the creation of the Hanagasa Ondo dance song some 60 years ago, when the outskirts of Obanazawa, in the extreme northeast of Yamagata, were irrigated. From that time on, the Hanagasa Ondo has been growing in stature and is now well known nationwide.
Other than being the just the birthplace of the Hanagasa Ondo however, Obanazawa is also famous for its Ginzan Onsen hot springs that have a retro-atmosphere reminding visitors of the Taisho era (1912-1926).
Mouthwatering treats available locally include the local soba noodles which are fatter and are made with fewer thickeners so that the flavor is stronger and more pronounced than elsewhere - for noodle fans everywhere, a real treat.

 Sendai, Tanabata Festival
Sendai Tanabata Festival Over 2 million tourists come to the Tanabata festival in Sendai every year. Colorful senbazurus (thousands of paper cranes threaded on string), kinchakus (purses), fukinagashi (streamers), and other fancy decorations are attached to 10 meter bamboo poles which bend under the weight and almost touch the ground. Taking several months to prepare them all, each pole with its adornments is worth several million yen and these beautiful paper decorations can be seen all over the city, swaying in the wind.
Journey next to Matushima. With a fantastic view of 260 islands 'floating on the ocean', it is said to be one of Japan's three most scenic areas.
Sendai offers a host of great spas such as Sakunami and Akiu Hot Springs while the local culinary delicacy is gyutan (beef tongue), and you can't go wrong with souvenirs like Hagi no Tsuki or Sasakamaboko (great with a little soy sauce and very well suited to a good bottle of sake).

In Tohoku, the end of the festivals also means the end of the short summer is drawing near.

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