The Squid Dance of Hakodate
So you've been to Hokkaido, you've had a sip of Sapporo beer, seen the warehouses at Otaru, and stood in awe at the nature of the Shiretoko Peninsula. What are you missing? A matsuri of course!
A matsuri is a traditional Japanese festival usually consisting of a parade, ten to twenty people hefting a mikoshi (a one-ton shrine) on their shoulders, dancing, and a whole lot of drinking. It`s safe to say that your Japanese cultural experience is incomplete without having participated in the local event of the year.
In Hokkaido perhaps the best known festival is the Snow Sculpture festival in Sapporo which takes place in February. Millions of tourists flood to the city streets to experience the beautiful hand-sculptured ice statues on display for five days only. However this is far from a traditional matsuri. So where can you find one of these events in Hokkaido. Truth is, there are two wildly fascinating matsuri which take place a few days apart from each other in the middle and in the south of Hokkaido. These are not to be missed, and are not only cultural events to watch, but also to take part in. Welcome to the Port Festival of Hakodate and the Bellybutton festival of Furano.
In this article let`s talk about the Port festival (minato matsuri). This takes place in August (summer in Japan), when the snow Hokkaido is so famous for is nowhere to be seen, and instead a thirty-degree heat descends on the city. Despite what many people think, Hokkaido is not cold all year round!
The festival goes for five days, and mainly consists of young friends and couples dressing up in kimono and walking around traditional food and game stalls nearby the port (make sure not to miss the okonomiyaki (savoury pancake), yakitori (fried chicken on a stick), kaki-koori (snow cone) and choco-banana (fairly self-explanatory)).
After enjoying the food, everyone heads down to the harbor, just in front of the famous red-brick warehouses, to watch a stunning (and super-long) fireworks display. Make sure you get there early, because all the good spots are snapped up fast! Now to the highlight of the festival: the squid dance. This takes place on two nights of the festival, and is the main event everyone looks forward to.
Hakodate, being a port town, is naturally famous for its seafood, especially its squid (although unfortunately the number of squid around Hokkaido is gradually diminishing due to over-fishing). The locals wanted to show their appreciation for the squid, and thus the ika-odori (squid dance) was born.
The squid dance is performed by teams of dancers in their own unique costumes, always with the same song, the same lyrics, and the same dance moves – this is the tradition. The lyrics, while naturally Japanese, have an overall `chorus` (a bit more like a chant) which is easy enough to remember- `Ika-ika-ika-ika-ika-odori!` (`Squid-squid-squid-squid-squid-dance!`). While it may be tiring to see the same dance for an hour and a bit, there is a reason for this – at the very end of the parade is a free-for-all audience participation section where hundreds of spectators ( in a slightly wobbly-legged fashion) try to remember the steps to the dance they`ve been watching all night. What follows is a mass dance-off, a cacophony of slurred lyrics, and an overall rush of exhilaration for all of those involved.
You can get to Hakodate via a shinkansen from Sapporo or a plane from Tokyo. If you`re in Hokkaido in August, make sure not to miss this traditional and wacky event! Get your squid on!
Note: For one night during the festival you may decide to nip over to Aomori, where the Nebuta Matsuri is taking place at the same time. Hop on an undersea train or a ferry to catch the show over on Honshu.
For more information, see the Hakodate Port Festival website: https://www.hakodate.travel/en/events/hakodate-port-festival.
Or take a look at the dance yourself at: