Thousands of matsuri (festivals), as they are referred to in Japan, are held in every region of the country every year. While there aren’t exact figures showing how many are celebrated every year, the number is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Of these, special attention should be paid to the Tōhoku region, Japan.
Japanese festivals in Tōhoku are held to honor ancestors, mark changes in the season, or for secular occasions. While many have their roots in Chinese festivals, local influence has seen them morph into celebrations almost completely unrecognizable from the originals.
One thing is for certain, though: few festival experiences can match that of a matsuri, especially one from Tōhoku.
The Great Three: The Best Japanese Festivals In Tōhoku.
Of Tōhoku’s many matsuris, the Sendai Tanabata, Akita Kanto, and Aomori Nebuta attract visitors not just from the local cities and towns, but from all over Japan and the world.
Sendai: Japan’s Largest Tanabata Festival
The tanabata festival is celebrated all over Japan, but the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is the biggest. It commemorates the convergence of the stars, Altair and Vega, which are meant to represent the myth of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The roots of tanabata are in the Chinese Qixi Festival, although today’s tanabata celebrations have evolved past the point of recognition from the original Qixi Festival.
During tanabata, people write their hopes and wishes on ornate pieces of paper and hang them on bamboo trees and poles. Store owners prepare bamboo poles well in advance of tanabata and, during the festival, the streets of Sendai overflow with colorful displays of multicolored decorations and paper wishes. Contests are held for the best decorations among the shopkeepers.
There are six different kinds of wish papers:
- The kimono. A buff that protects against ill health.
- The net. Good harvests.
- The crane. For long life, health, and safety
- The purse. For good business
- The trash bag. Cleanliness.
- Paper strips. For good handwriting.
Sendai’s Tanabata Festival is held in the first week of August, in keeping with the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar, while other tanabata festivals are held in July, in accordance with the Chinese lunar calendar.
Akita: Kanto Festival
This festival is held to pray for a bountiful harvest of the main grain crops produced in the region. Festival-goers take turns hoisting up 39-foot (12-meter) bamboo poles decorated with 46 paper lanterns and shreds of paper. This is meant to drive away evil demons and to ask for blessings from the Shinto and Buddhist gods.
Even if you aren’t a believer in the Japanese pantheon, I still believe that asking for blessings can be enormously cathartic. At every matsuri I ever went to, the locals always welcomed participation by gaijin (foreigners) in their customs. Besides … you should never doubt the power of asking the universe for what you want because you never know what may come your way.
Aomori: Nebuta Matsuri
The Aomori Nebuta Festival is the largest of its kind in Japan. Like the tanabata festival, the nebuta festival and many of its traditions—like sending off the spirits of the deceased each year—originated from the Qixi festival.
Floats shaped like giant people, called nebuta, are paraded throughout the city. Dancers, called haneto, jump and dance along, cheering “rassera-rassera.” Possibly the best part is how spectacularly the festival ends, when everyone in the festival heads towards the sea to watch a grand finale of fireworks.
A while back, I was fortunate enough to have the honor of getting to be one of the haneto dancers with a group of friends I went to high school with. To this day, I still look back fondly on having the immense privilege of participating in the nebuta matsuri. If you should ever find yourself contemplating an invite to get involved—to quote a certain athletic brand—just do it.
Other Notable Festivals
While these matsuris don’t loom quite so large in the collective Japanese consciousness, they absolutely deserve a mention. If you happen to be in the neighborhood and you see these events going on, you need to check them out. Just trust me on that one.
Toro nagashi, or literally, ‘floating lanterns’. In August, Japanese lanterns are floated down rivers for three days to honor the spirits of those who have passed on and to guide them back to the spirit world from which they came.
Toro nagashi traditionally signifies the end of the Bon Festival, a religious Buddhist holiday. Bon is meant to be a welcome to the spirit ancestors into our world.
Yonezawa: Uesugi Snow Lanterns
Northern Japan gets a ridiculous amount of snow. The city of Yonezawa in the Yamagata Prefecture is well known for its abundant snowfall.
While I never had the pleasure of visiting this particular festival, I can attest to how ridiculous the snow can be in this region of Japan. Believe me when I say this: roads and sidewalks can turn into tunnels and hallways in the winter. So, for a town to be known for its ‘snowiness’ in a region with plenty of snow to go around says something.
The main event takes place in February in Matsugasaki Park. While the matsuri is going on, the whole park is lined with hundreds of snow lanterns and thousands of snow lamps.
Yonezawa has a deep connection to the Uesugi clan, after which this festival is named and each year, a snow castle is modeled after the Uesugi clan’s former castle. Had I gotten the chance to go, no questions about it, my number one goal would be to check out the awe-inspiring replica.
American Day may be an odd one for some, but if you are an American and missing home while abroad and you’re in the Tōhoku region in early October, this could be just the thing you need.
It’s a festival held to commemorate the close relationship between the American people and the Japanese people in the city of Misawa. Or rather, more specifically, the US military and the citizens of Misawa. Regardless, you can expect stage performances, live music and entertainment, traditional dance, and food vendors. Fairly standard festival fare, but with a red, white, and blue twist.
Oirase, or the Salmon Festival, is a festival that is held every year in Shimoda, Aomori Prefecture. It’s a festival where you wade into pools of water and catch salmon with your bare hands. The year I went, I nearly lost my salmon. But, fortunately, I was able to bear hug that beast at the last moment. It would make for a perfect foodie experience in Tōhoku.
Tōhoku, Japan may not be my mother country, but it did “foster” me for the most formative years of my life. It’s a magical place where you can do anything from catch a salmon to dance in a procession, or even just taste an Aomori apple. The gifts this wonderful region has to offer the world are without price.
If you want to know more about the phenomenal food and lifestyle that promotes longevity throughout the Land of the Rising Sun, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.