A dance of 10,000 drummers: Morioka Sansa Odori
Mention “Sansa” to an English-speaking audience and many would think of Sansa Stark, the character from Game of Thrones. However, to the Japanese, “Sansa” almost always brings to mind one of the most important festivals in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県)—the Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り).
Thousands of taiko drums set the beat for the festival. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会 (left) and Iwate Prefecture / JNTO (right))
From 1–4 August every year, Morioka City (盛岡市), the capital of Iwate, comes alive when it hosts the Morioka Sansa Odori, a festival which holds the Guiness World Record for the World’s Largest Taiko Drum Parade—over 10,000!
Performers at the Morioka Sansa Odori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Over the 4 days, the festival sees more than 35,000 performers and attracts more than 1.4 million people in crowds each year, and part of the fun is being able to join in the dance: anyone of any age / gender / nationality is welcome to join.
In fact, the theme of the Morioka Sansa Odori is "Come, see, be enchanted, and join us." (来て、観て、魅せられ、加わるさんさ Kite, mite, miserare, kuwawaru sansa). Enjoy Morioka’s summer nights to the fullest with the energy of the parade!
Legend has it that a long time ago, the local people were being terrorized by a demon. At a loss at what to do, they prayed to the God of the Mitsuishi Shrine (三ツ石神社 Mitsuishi Jinja), who answered their prayers, captured the demon, and made him pledge to stop his evil deeds. As a symbol of the pledge, the demon left his handprint on a rock at the shrine. It is said that this legend was where the name of Iwate came from: “iwa (岩)” means “rock”, and “te (手)” means “hand”.
Sansa odori around the rock at Mitsuishi Shrine. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)
To celebrate finally being free of the demon’s troublemaking, the locals started dancing around the rock at the Mitsuishi Shrine, cheering “Sansa! Sansa!”, and it is said that this was how the Morioka Sansa Odori started. (Note: “odori” means “dance”).
Enjoy the dance parades
Morioka Sansa Odori hand-drawn poster at a local Starbucks. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In recent times, most of the main festival's sansa odori has evolved to become a simplified and modern version of the dance, and the event is a big deal in Morioka City. Places like the local Starbucks even put up hand-drawn signs “reminding” patrons that the parade starts at 18:00, as well as the venue.
To see a more traditional sansa odori being performed, you can check out the Taki-no-Hiroba Square (滝の広場) in front of JR Morioka Station or the Morioka Shimin Bunka Hall (盛岡市民文化ホール), where competitions are held from 13:00–16:00 during festival days. In front of JR Morioka Station, there are also temporary booths where volunteers hand out maps and parade information sheets. Some are available in English, so be sure to stop by before heading to the parade site.
Sitting at the roadside to enjoy the festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The main parade takes place on the street of Chuō-dōri (中央通り), starting in front of the Iwate Prefectural Office (県庁前 Kenchōmae). Although there are paid seats (~¥2,500/seat), which are elevated and offer a higher vantage point, the festival parade is free to watch, and most people would take a seat by the roadside, marking their spots with floor mats or foldable chairs.
Be sure to come early if you want to get a good spot at the front! The parade begins at 18:00, but it is not uncommon to see families staking out from the late afternoon, just to secure a good spot. In consideration for other attendees, use only the space you need and do not hoard excess floor space, so as to give others a chance to get a view too.
2019 Miss Sansa Odori opening the festival parade. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Each year, five cheerful young ladies from the local community are chosen to be Miss Sansa Odori (ミスさんさ踊り). Throughout the year, they are tasked with serving as cultural exchange ambassadors for Morioka City and the Sansa Odori. These ladies lead the parade, performing at the front of the pack. About a week before the festival, the Miss Sansa Odori ladies make their dance debut at Mitsuishi Shrine, performing a dedication ritual dance (奉納演舞 hōnō enbu).
2019 Miss Taiko, Miss Yokobue and Utakko-musume performing at the festival parade. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Miss Sansa Odori is followed by the Sansa Taiko Ren, a group made up of lovely ladies in three categories: Miss Taiko (ミス太鼓), ladies belting out beats on the taiko drums; Miss Yokobue (ミス横笛), ladies playing melodies on the flutes; and Utakko-Musume (うたっこ娘), ladies singing. These groups of ladies are chosen from local applicants who are all big fans of the festival.
Taiko groups from NTT (telecom company) and JR East (railway company). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Sansa odori groups from various schools. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Morioka Sansa Odori is truly a local festival, with most of its participants being men, women, and children from the local communities. Coming from all ages and backgrounds, some of the groups are put together by corporations, while some are from schools, and others from various community groups. It was very endearing to see children participating for their first few times, and exciting to see the dynamic and lively dances by seasoned performers.
Energetic performers bringing joy to the crowd. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The parade starts at 18:00 and runs until around 20:30, and the participants have to dance through a roughly 1km route. Despite this, the performers were all very energetic, with bright smiles on their faces, infecting the crowd with their enthusiasm. You can't help but tap your fingers to the beat.
During the parade, you can hear chants of "Sakkora Choi Wa Yasse" (サッコラチョイワヤッセ), which is a call for happiness. It is said that shouting this phrase brings happiness and joy to everyone around.
Floats at the festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
JR East’s float. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Other than the taiko performers and dancers, there are also a few floats gracing the parade. This particular one is by JR East, advertising the ALFA-X, a new-generation bullet train that just began testing that year. The energetic dancer in the middle really caught my attention with his enthusiastic moves.
Although the main parade performance ends at around 20:30, another fun activity soon begins—the wa-odori (輪踊り) circle dance. During this segment, Miss Sansa Odori, festival participants, and anyone who wants to join can participate. Attendees of all ages, gender, and nationality are welcome to join in the dance. Don’t worry about not knowing how to dance, as there will be a dance master, the Sansa Oherense-shishō (さんさおへれんせ師匠), who will be there to teach you how to dance the Sansa Odori.
Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り)
Date: 01–04 August annually
Venue: Chuo-dori Street, in front of the Prefectural Office (15-minute walk from JR Morioka Station)
*Based on 2019's details. Schedule might change.
Yatai around Sakurayama Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Of course, any festival experience is never complete without food! For the Morioka Sansa Odori, you will find street food stalls (屋台 yatai) near the Prefectural Office, as well as around Sakurayama Shrine (櫻山神社 Sakurayama Jinja). You can find local items like grilled scallops and fresh oysters, as well as all-time festival favourites like yakisoba (焼きそば stir-fried noodles), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き Japanese-style savoury pancakes), and the festival beverage of choice: beer.
Tohoku's Five Great Summer Festivals
Clockwise from top left: Aomori Nebuta Festival, Akita Kanto Festival, Sendai Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The region of Tohoku really comes alive in summer with its summer festivals. If you can, I highly recommend battling the heat and visiting during this vibrant and exciting season. Other than the Morioka Sansa Odori, Tohoku has a plethora of stunning summer festivals in the same week (the first week of August) that are equally grand and magical.
Calendar of major Tohoku summer festivals. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
These festivals include the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), the Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈祭り), the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り), and the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠祭り), which together with the Morioka Sansa Odori make up the Five Great Summer Festivals of Tohoku (東北五大夏祭り Tо̄hoku godai natsumatsuri).
If you are thinking of doing a summer festival trip around Tohoku, it’s totally possible to visit a different festival every day. In 2019, I had a blast checking out Tohoku’s Five Great Summer Festivals plus Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival on the same trip, and you can visit even more if you squeeze in the other regional festivals. In fact, festival-hopping something the local Japanese tourists do too, though perhaps more commonly two to three festivals over a 3-day weekend.
For reference, this was my 2019 itinerary:
03 August | Nagaoka Fireworks Festival
04 August | Morioka Sansa Odori
05 August | Akita Kanto Festival
06 August | Sendai Tanabata Festival (AM) and Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (PM)
07 August | Aomori Nebuta Festival (AM float parade, PM boat parade + fireworks)
Basing in Morioka
Exterior of JR Morioka Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you are planning to visit multiple Tohoku summer festivals, I recommend basing yourself in Morioka, so that you don’t have to change hotels every night. JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅) is a 130-minute bullet train ride from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅) via the Tohoku Shinkansen Line or the Akita Shinkansen Line.
Located centrally in the middle of the Tohoku region, Morioka is only a short train ride away from the other cities hosting summer festivals:
- JR Sendai Station (Tanabata Festival): around 40 minutes by direct bullet train
- JR Aomori Station (Nebuta Festival): around 75 minutes including transfer at Shin-Aomori Station
- JR Akita Station (Kanto Festival): around 90 minutes by direct bullet train
- JR Yamagata Station (Hanagasa Festival): around 2.5 hours including transfer at Sendai Station
Exterior of Hotel Metropolitan Morioka. (Image credit: JR East Hotels)
There are many hotels around Morioka Station, but be sure to book them quick as they get very busy during the festival season. During my summer festival trip, I stayed at Hotel Metropolitan Morioka, which is directly connected to JR Morioka Station, as well as to the station mall Fesan.
Nothing beats the convenience of being able to walk directly from the station to the hotel, especially when coming back late at night from all the festivals. There’s even a Family Mart konbini (コンビニ convenience store) at the hotel lobby, great for grabbing some midnight bites or last minute snacks before catching a train. The friendly front desk staff are always eager and ready to help with food and sightseeing recommendations.
Morioka's Three Great Noodles. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
While in Morioka, don't miss the chance to try out their famous noodles: not one, not two, but three of them! Morioka's Three Great Noodles comprise of reimen (冷麺 cold noodles), jajamen (じゃじゃ麺 black bean paste noodles), and wanko soba (わんこそば a soba-eating challenge served in bite-sized portions). Check out my other article about an experience eating these three delicious dishes.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting Morioka and 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 any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Morioka (~¥30,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.
You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to one month in advance, here. After exploring Morioka, you can also visit the nearby prefectures of Aomori, Akita, Miyagi, and more.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh