A brightly lit float at the Nebuta Festival in Aomori

Photo:Pohan Chen

Dancing in the streets: Celebrate summer nights with Tohoku’s August festivals

The pulsing drums, the grandiose floats, the colorful costumes: it’s all on parade in Japan’s northeast during the first week of August. Festivals in six different cities draw over one million visitors.

Yamagata’s annual 3-night street party (from August 5-7, 6:00-9:30 pm) is a marvel of synchronicity. Nearly 10,000 dancers march down the city’s main street in step with each other and to chants of “Yassho! Makkasho!” Most performers whirl, flip, and thrust the Hanagasa, a broad-brimmed straw hat, in elaborate moves about the head, while their sandaled feet pound the pavement.

One of the many groups of dancers in Yamagata’s Hanagasa Festival
One of the many groups of dancers in Yamagata’s Hanagasa Festival

Photo: f_a_r_w_e_l_l on Flickr

Man participating in festival with large paper and bamboo umbrella

Others twirl over-sized bamboo and paper umbrellas with equal precision. Participants and spectators alike are collectively mesmerized by the beating drums and the repetition of the choreography, as groups of school kids, salary men, and grandmothers display their dexterity and aerobic endurance in a burst of public fun. An alliance of Yamagata natives who immigrated to Tokyo returns every year as participants to revel in the hometown event. For many of these, more important than coordination is simply the chance get together and dance it out.

The Yamagata University troupe huddles before the parade starts as the crowd eagerly awaits
The Yamagata University troupe huddles before the parade starts as the crowd eagerly awaits

Each group has its own variation on the dance, but the student marchers from Yamagata University are hands-down the most impressive. Their sheer physical ability wows even the most passive bystander. As their youthful energy spreads through the crowd, the night becomes electric.

Everyone is headed for the sprawling grounds of the historical Bunshoukan at the terminus of main street. As the final groups make their way on to the grounds, spectators are invited to join the “walk-in circle dance,” and any remaining boundaries between novice and pro fade into the steamy night.

As the excitement calms down, explore the small side streets off the main drag to find Yamagata’s local barbecue joints and watering holes. A steaming plate of yakitori and a cold drink are the perfect ending to this summer memory.

Yakitori restaurant and bar with brightly lit paper lanterns hanging in front

Yamagata’s Hanagasa Festival is just one of many held during August throughout Tohoku’s six prefectures. The other major festivals are:

Nebuta Festival (August 2-7): In Tohoku’s port city of Aomori, massive floats based on traditional Kabuki theater characters are paraded in the annual contest that gets the competitive—and creative—juices flowing.

Kanto Festival (August 3-6): Performers in Akita’s parade skillfully maneuver 12-meter high poles decked with paper lanterns down the streets as troupes of musicians keep the beat.

Sanso Odori Festival (August 1-4): The sheer number of drums in Morioka’s summer dance were enough to get in the Guinness Book of World Records (as the largest drum parade in the world), and will surely get you on your feet and in to the circle dance.

Tanabata Festival (August 6-8): Sendai is adorned with decorations during three nights of fireworks and concerts.

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