The 3 Great Festivals of Tohoku - 3 Must-See Summer Events in Northern Japan

Tohoku Culture Sendai 2020.08.15
These three summer festivals are worth the trek north during your Japanese travels.

Three Tohoku Festivals! Tanabata in Sendai, Nebuta in Aomori, and Kanto in Akita

Not sure how to spend your summer vacation in Japan? Well, considering the oppressive humidity and heat that overtakes Japanese travel favorites like Tokyo and Kyoto every summer, a trip through Tohoku in breezy northern Japan might just be the answer.

In Japan, summertime is festival time, and that certainly holds true in Tohoku as well. Three major festivals happen around the region every year, each uniquely fun and exciting.The Three Great Festivals of Tohoku are the Nebuta Festival of Aomori, Kanto Festival of Akita, and Tanabata Festival of Sendai (in Miyagi), and with a little careful planning you might be able to fit all three of them onto one week-long itinerary!

① Aomori - The Nebuta Festival

  • Image Source: Aomori Tourism Convention Association

Japan's festival of lanterns and parade floats, the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭, Aomori Nebuta Matsuri) was officially designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1980. Every year the festival is held from August 2nd to 7th, and it regularly attracts over 3 million tourists from around Japan, and around the world (far more than any of Japan's other similar Nebuta festivals). Large "nebuta" (ねぶた) lanterns are carried down the streets of Aomori like parade floats, depicting Japanese gods, characters from mythology, or sometimes legendary historical figures.

The festival is so long-lived that its origins are murky, but a popular theory states that the celebrations originate from 8th-century shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, who used a cacophony of drums and flutes to distract enemies in battle. Others suspect that the Nebuta Festival is an offshoot of the Tanabata Festival, which itself has its roots in ancient Chinese legend.
  • Image Source: Aomori Tourism Convention Association

  • Image Source: Aomori Tourism Convention Association

Want to join in?
Travelers can even be a part of the Nebuta Festival, too, with just a little planning! You'll need to buy or rent an outfit to participate (shop list here―we recommend reservations), check for meeting points, and arrive at least ten minutes before festivities get moving.

Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭)
Official Website
August 1 | "Nebuta Eve" | 18:00 - 21:00
August 2~3 | Children's Nebuta | 19:10 - 21:00
August 4~6 | Large Nebuta | 19:10 - 21:00
August 7 | Large Nebuta | 13:00 - 15:00
                Fireworks | 19:15 - 21:00

② Akita - The Kanto Festival

A truly impressive feat of strength and coordination, the Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈まつり) begins with almost 300 long poles decked with huge hanging lanterns being lifted into the air to the sound of bamboo flutes, as a ritual warding off evil and a tribute the the gods. Each of the poles, called "kanto," range from 5 to 12 meters long (16 to 39ft), and they have the weight to match. But each is carried by one person, who balances the poles and all the lanterns attached on their palm, their lower back, their shoulder, or even their forehead! Considering the skill, and luck, that it takes to balance a 12m pole and dozens of lanterns right between your eyes, it's hard to doubt that Japan's gods aren't helping out a little!
Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈まつり)
Official Website
August 3~6
Advance tickets may be necessary.

③ Sendai (Miyagi) - Tanabata Festival

The Japanese traditions of Tanabata have a long history, reaching back to a Chinese legend of starcrossed lovers who rush through heavens and meet in the sky just once a year, in mid-summer every year. The Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり), in Miyagi Prefecture, began its history in the 17th century, thanks to Date Masamune, a powerful regional ruler who founded the city of Sendai itself.

While most Tanabata celebrations are held on the 7th day of the 7th month each year (July 7th), Sendai chooses to celebrate a month later, and the festival lasts from the 6th to the 8th of August. The streets of the city see a yearly flood of tourists when approximately 2 million people come to check out the festival's colorful streamers, decking out roads and buildings in every direction, and lively parades.
Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり)
Official Website
August 6~8
Where will you head this summer? Tell us about your plans and which festival you want to check out most―then follow Japankuru for more updates and information from Japan, at twitter, instagram, and facebook!
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