Matsuri museums: Experience Tohoku’s summer festivals year-round!
Japan’s summer festivals (夏祭り natsu matsuri) have always had a reputation for being vibrant and exciting, showcasing traditions unique to the regions they’re celebrated in. Unfortunately, these festivals are only held for few days, and as foreign visitors travelling from overseas, it might be tough for us to visit Japan during the exact dates of the festivals.
So, what can we do if we want to experience even a fraction of these amazing festivals? Visit a matsuri museum! Usually open throughout the year, matsuri museums are a great way to learn about the history and traditions of the festivals they represent, and visitors can usually also “experience” certain key elements of the actual festivals. In this article, we’ll take a look at six of them in the Tohoku region. Are you ready? Let’s go!
① Akita Kanto Festival @ Neburi Nagashi Kan
The Akita Kanto Festival is not just a festival, but also a performance. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
Of all the matsuri I’ve been too, the Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈まつり) has always been one of my personal favourites. Not just a festival, the Akita Kanto Festival is also a performance, and the kanto (竿燈 kantо̄, bamboo poles attached with lanterns) balancing acts are works of art. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch the performers, especially when thinking about how long they must have practiced to hone their skills and strength.
One of Tohoku’s Three Great Summer Festivals, the Akita Kanto Festival is held every summer from 3–6 August in the capital city of Akita. This festival traditionally prays for a bountiful harvest, where the kantо resemble ears of rice plants waving in the air and scaring away bad spirits.
Inside the Neburi Nagashi Kan. (Image credit: JR East Akita Branch and Akita Prefecture)
If you cannot visit Akita during the Akita Kanto Festival, don’t worry, you can still get up close to the kanto poles all year round at the Akita City Folk Performing Arts Heritage Center, which is more commonly known as the Neburi Nagashi Kan (ねぶり流し館).
On the first floor of the museum, there is a permanent exhibition showcasing Akita’s traditional festivals, such as the Akita Kanto Festival, as well as other festivals like the Tsuchizaki Port Hikiyama Festival. The high atrium extends from the first floor to the third floor, so you can have a good look at the tall kanto on display. On the second and third floors, you can find videos and materials introducing Akita's folk performing arts.
Try balancing kanto. (Image credit: JR East Akita Branch)
The highlight of the Akita Kanto Festival is of course the kanto balancing acts, and what better way to “experience” the festival than by trying your hand at balancing an actual kanto?
The Neburi Nagashi Kan has a challenge corner where visitors can try out balancing small kanto. The staff will give a short explanation and some tips on how to do it, and then let the visitors try it out. Don’t worry, you’ll be given smaller and lighter kanto that are suitable for beginners, not the heavier and taller kanto that the professional performers use!
Balancing kanto is not easy, especially when moving and walking from side-to-side. However, it is a lot of fun, so be sure give it a try when you visit this museum! If you visit on Saturdays, Sundays, and Public Holidays from May to October, you will also be able to enjoy professional demonstrations of kanto balancing between 13:30–14:10.
Exterior of the Neburi Nagashi Kan. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
Akita City Folk Performing Arts Heritage Center “Neburi Nagashi Kan” (秋田市民俗芸能伝承館・ねぶり流し館)
Address: 1-3-30 Omachi, Akita-shi, Akita 010-0921
Access: 15-minute walk from the West Exit of JR Akita Station (秋田駅)
Opening hours: 9:30–16:30 (Closed during the year-end and New Year holidays)
Admission fee: ¥100/adult
② Sendai Tanabata Festival @ Tanabata Museum
The Sendai Tanabata Festival is famous for its beautiful handmade fukinagashi decorations. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Over in Miyagi Prefecture is another one of Tohoku’s Three Great Summer Festivals: the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り Sendai Tanabata Matsuri). Tanabata is also known as the Star Festival (星祭り hoshi matsuri), and originated from the Chinese Qixi (七夕) Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the star-crossed lovers Cowherd Hikoboshi (彦星) and Weaver Girl Orihime (織姫), who according to the legend, are separated by a celestial river (the Milky Way), and can only meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month—the Star Festival.
The highlight of this festival is definitely the colourful handmade fukinagashi (吹き流し) decorations adorning the city, which embody the heartfelt wishes of the local community. During the festival, which is held on 6–8 August annually, over 3,000 stunning fukinagashi line a 1.7km stretch of shopping arcades between Sendai Station (仙台駅) and Kōtōdai Kōen Subway Station (勾当台公園駅).
Inside the Tanabata Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
If you are unable to visit Sendai during these 3 days, or do not wish to squeeze with the 2 million visitors who check out the decorations during this period, you can always head on over to the Tanabata Museum (七夕ミュージアム Tanabata Myūjiamu), which showcases actual fukinagashi decorations from previous years’ festivities.
At the museum, you can take your time to admire the decorations without having to worry about crowds, and take as many photos as you like without worrying about blocking other pedestrians’ paths.
Making miniature nanatsu kazari. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Did you know that aside from fukinagashi, there are six other types of Tanabata decorations, which together make up the nanatsu kazari (七つ飾り seven decorations) of the Tanabata Festival?
At the Tanabata Museum, you can experience making your own set of miniature Tanabata decorations. The experience costs ¥1,500, takes about 1 hour, and is available every day at 11:30 and 14:00, by reservation only. Online reservations can be made here (Japanese only).
Entrance to the Tanabata Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
Tanabata Museum (七夕ミュージアム)
Address: 6-65 Tsurushiro-machi, Wakabayashi-ku, Sendai, Miyagi 984-0001
Access: From Sendai Station (仙台駅), take the Tōzai Subway Line to Arai Station (荒井駅), transfer to bus stop #16 or #18, and get off at Oroshimachi Higashi Go-chome Kita Bus Stop, where you will see Kanezaki Sasakamakan (鐘崎笹かま館) in front of you. The Tanabata Museum is right beside Kanezaki Sasakamakan.
Opening hours: 9:30–15:00 (Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays) / 9:30-18:00 (Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, Public Holidays)
Admission fee: Free
③ Aomori Nebuta Festival @ Nebuta Museum WA RASSE
The Aomori Nebuta Festival is famed for its large, elaborate floats. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Rounding up Tohoku’s Three Great Summer Festivals—and Tohoku’s largest festival by number of visitors—is the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り Aomori Nebuta Matsuri), which usually sees over 3 million visitors each year (pre COVID-19). Held on 2–7 August in Aomori City, this fantastic festival awes visitors with its stunning giant nebuta (ねぶた) floats, often depicting historical and mythical figures and creatures. The floats are like giant lanterns illuminated from within, and the detailed images almost seem to pop out!
Of the festival’s approximately 80 floats, about 20 are the gigantic type. These enormous three-dimensional (3D) floats are hand-crafted by master craftsmen, and require months of hard work to make.
Nebuta floats inside the museum. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you’d like to learn more about and get up close to some nebuta floats, head on over to the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE (ねぶたの家 ワ・ラッセ Nebuta-no-ie Wa Rasse) in Aomori City, which showcases actual nebuta floats from previous years’ parades.
Opened in 2011, the museum also has a large screen, where a 10-minute video of previous years’ parades is played at 30-minute intervals. Visitors to the museum will also get the rare chance to see the inside of some nebuta floats, and even touch and feel actual floats.
Learn about previous years’ winners and the craftsmen who create the nebuta floats. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
While the Aomori Nebuta Festival is mainly a parade, it is also a competition among the floats. Inside the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE, there are panels showing previous years’ winning floats, as well as introducing the nebuta-making techniques and the various craftsmen who create these floats.
Visitors can try out various activities in the museum. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If looking at the floats is not enough, how about “experiencing” the festival atmosphere? Aside from the floats, another highlight of the Aomori Nebuta Festival is the haneto dancers, who bring high energy to the festival with their cheers of “Rassera, rassera!” To get a feel of the energetic festival atmosphere, you can join the museum’s daily haneto experience (at 11:10, 13:10, and 15:10), where you can try doing the haneto dance, banging cymbals, and beating the taiko drums.
Other than their sheer size, what makes Aomori Nebuta Festival’s nebuta floats special is the 3D appearance of the figures. Nebuta floats are made of wood (for the internal structure and support), wire (for the detailed shaping), and washi paper (to coat the wire frames). For those interested in getting a glimpse of what it’s like to make a nebuta float, they can partake in the Nebuta Papering Experience (at 10:00 and 14:00), during which they can learn about the structure and construction process of the floats.
Entrance to the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Nebuta Museum WA RASSE (ねぶたの家 ワ・ラッセ)
Address: 1-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori-shi, Aomori 030-0803
Access: 1-minute walk from JR Aomori Station (青森駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–18:00 (September–April), 9:00–19:00 (May–August)
Closed: 31 December, 01 January, 09–10 August
Admission fee: ¥620/adult
④ Hirosaki Neputa Festival @ Tsugaru-han Neputa Village
The Hirosaki Neputa Festival has fan-shaped floats. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
While the Aomori Nebuta Festival is the most famous nebuta festival, did you know that there are over 40 different nebuta and neputa festivals in Aomori Prefecture alone? Another notable one is the Hirosaki Neputa Festival (弘前ねぷたまつり), held from 1–7 August in Hirosaki City.
Although Aomori City is the present-day capital of Aomori Prefecture, before that, Hirosaki City was for a long time the cultural and economic capital of the Tsugaru region—the old name for western Aomori.
Unlike the more three-dimensional human-form Aomori Nebuta Festival floats, the floats for the Hirosaki Neputa Festival are mostly fan-shaped (扇型 о̄gigata), with the designs painted on the surfaces.
Neputa floats typically have images of fierce warriors on the front, and elegant ladies behind. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you are unable to visit Hirosaki during the festival dates, you can still see the Hirosaki Neputa Festial floats at the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village (津軽藩ねぷた村 Tsugaru-han Neputa Mura).
Other than their unique fan-shape, another key feature of the Hirosaki Neputa Festival’s floats is the contrast between the dynamic and fierce images of warriors on the front picture (鏡絵 kagamie) with the elegant portraits of beautiful ladies on the back picture (見送り絵 miokurie).
The museum also plays videos from previous years’ parades, and offers short information sessions with explanations given by museum staff.
Shamisen performance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Not just limited to neputa floats, the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village showcases and lets you experience a wide array of Tsugaru’s rich culture. The culturally-rich Tsugaru region is famous for shamisen (三味線), a traditional Japanese string instrument, and you can enjoy live shamisen performances at the museum.
Visitors can try out a variety of local crafts at Tsugaru-han Neputa Village. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
You can also try out a variety of Tsugaru cultural crafts like kite-painting, making mini neputa fan stands, painting wooden apples and wooden dolls, Tsugaru pottery, Tsugaru lacquerware, and more.
Entrance to the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Tsugaru-han Neputa Village (津軽藩ねぷた村)
Address: 61 Kamenoko-cho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8332
Access: From JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅), take a 30-minute walk, or take a 15-minute bus ride to the Tsugaruhan Neputamura Bus Stop.
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥550/adult
⑤ Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival @ Tachineputa no Yakata
Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival floats are tall and high. (Image credit: 五所川原観光協会)
The Aomori Nebuta Festival impresses with its massive 3D floats, while the Hirosaki Neputa Festival awes with the contrasting images of its fan-shaped floats. Over in the small city of Goshogawara is one more noteworthy nebuta festival: the Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival (五所川原立佞武多祭り Goshogawara Tachineputa Matsuri), which is held from 4–8 August.
This festival amazes spectators with its towering tachineputa floats, which can be up to a whopping 23m or seven storeys-high! Tachi (立ち) means “standing”, and these tachineputa floats are certainly eye-catching when standing at their tall heights.
Inside the Tachineputa no Yakata. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Can’t make it to Goshogawara during summer to see the festival? Don’t worry, you can still view the magnificent tachineputa floats year-round at the Tachineputa no Yakata (立佞武多の館), a museum located just a 5-minute walk from JR Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅). Did you know? During the actual festival, the parade procession sets off from this facility before making its rounds across the city.
As mentioned, tachineputa floats are very tall, so this museum building is also a few storeys tall, and you will need to walk around a spiral slope to view the tachineputa in the centre of the atrium. This layout lets you get a look at the higher parts of the float at eye level, which you normally would not be able to do at the actual festival.
Floats and exhibits inside the Tachineputa no Yakata. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Inside the museum, you can see previous years’ floats, as well as exhibitions detailing the history of and information on the festival. The museum also plays videos of the parade processions from previous years, so you can get a glimpse of what the parade atmosphere is like.
Exterior of Tachineputa no Yakata. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Tachineputa no Yakata (立佞武多の館)
Address: 506-10, Omachi, Goshogawara-shi, Aomori 037-0063
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥650/adult
⑥ Omagari Fireworks Festival @ HANABI UM
Omagari Fireworks Festival is Tohoku’s largest fireworks festival. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
In addition to traditional summer festivals, another big part of summer in Japan is the fireworks festivals. The Omagari Fireworks (大曲の花火 О̄magari no hanabi) in Akita Prefecture’s Daisen City is Tohoku’s largest fireworks extravaganza, delighting spectators with its stunning pyrotechnical displays.
Usually held on the fourth Saturday of August, one thing that makes the Omagari Fireworks event unique is that there are both day and night categories, unlike most other fireworks shows which only happen at night.
Learn more about fireworks at HANABI UM. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
If you don’t manage to snag a highly coveted ticket to the Omagari Fireworks, or are interested in learning more about fireworks in general, you can head on over to the Hanabi Tradition and Culture Preservation Museum (花火伝統文化継承資料館 Hanabi Dentō Bunka Keishō Shiryōkan), also known as HANABI UM (はなび・アム hanabi-amu).
Newly opened in 2018, HANABI UM is a place where visitors can learn about and experience fireworks. In addition to the exhibitions—where you can learn about the history of fireworks, how to make them, and how to appreciate them—the museum also has interactive facilities that fireworks enthusiasts would be thrilled to check out.
HANABI UM’s Hanabi Theatre. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
One of these facilities is the Hanabi Theatre, where high-definition fireworks images are projected onto a four-sided multi-screen. Another fun activity can be found at the Hanabi Sōsaku Kōbō (はなび創作工房), where you can experience launching one-of-a-kind fireworks that you designed onto the screen! If you enjoy watching fireworks, you should definitely check out HANABI UM.
Exterior of HANABI UM. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
Hanabi Tradition and Culture Preservation Museum (花火伝統文化継承資料館)
Address: 7-19 Omagariomachi, Daisen-shi, Akita 014-0025
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Omagari Station (大曲駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–16:00
Admission fee: Free
While summer festivals last only a few days, visitors to Japan can still experience important elements of these festivals and learn more about their histories by visiting matsuri museums. You might be able to get even closer looks at the floats in the museums compared to at the actual festivals. So don’t be too sad if you cannot go to Japan during matsuri season, always remember that matsuri museums are waiting for you all year round!
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting matsuri museums in the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥35,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh, JR East / Sue Lynn, Akita Prefecture